Modern believers have probably acquired more information about Biblical shepherds from Christmas cards than from the Scriptures themselves. Generally thought to be gentle, kindly, caring men, somewhat aloof from society but wholeheartedly committed to their flock, the shepherd is understandably a handy image for Christ who was indeed never served but always serving. There are times when the protecting arms of such a shepherd might truly be a consolation to a straying ewe or wayward lamb – or a repentant sinner. Yet the principal examples of the ideal shepherd in Scripture are not drawn from the midnight hills of Bethlehem but from the forty year trek through the Sinai desert and the four decade struggle for unity in Jerusalem.
The white haired Moses who led his Hebrew people from the midst of the Red Sea to the banks of the Jordan River indeed possesses the Bible’s authentic marks of a true shepherd, a true pastoral leader. The ruddy King David who, in spite of adultery and murder, became the heroic organizer of Israel’s twelve tribes and the courageous developer of Jerusalem as Israel’s sole capital is also a Scriptural model of authentic pastoral zeal. When Jesus declares himself to be “the Good Shepherd,” he is certainly mindful of the indefatigable Moses and the passionate David as well as the reckless shepherd of the parables who forsakes the ninety-nine to track the single lost stray.
Scripture scholars point out that the Letter to the Hebrews, recalling the Prophet Isaiah, sees a clear comparison between the patriarch Moses and pastoral Jesus Christ. Isaiah wrote: “Then they remembered the days of old, of Moses, his servant: Where is the one who brought up out of the sea the shepherd of his flock? (63:11).” Yes, Moses the “shepherd of his flock” survived the Red Sea to lead his people on to their earthly Promised Land. The same author of Hebrews acknowledges that God also raised up Christ, not from the Red Sea but from the cold grave, to be the eternal shepherd of the flock redeemed by His Blood: “May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus, our Lord, furnish you with all that is good, that you may do his will (13:20-21).” So vigorous, enduring leadership is a Biblical mark of good shepherds like Moses and like Christ.
Besides the author of Hebrews, the crowds along the streets of Galilee and Judea also sensed strong leadership qualities in the preacher Jesus Christ, qualities their ancestors had perceived in King David. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is compared to King David more than any other Old Testament figure. Psalm 110 – a psalm of David and the most often quoted psalm in the New Testament – clearly blends the memory of David with the mission of Christ: “The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, “Have dominion over your enemies! Yours is princely power from the day of your birth.” In holy splendor before the daystar, like dew I begot you. The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.” At your right hand is the Lord, who crushes kings on the day of his wrath, who judges nations, heaps up corpses, crushes heads across the wide earth, who drinks from the brook by the wayside and thus holds high his head.” The Jews applied these powerful words to David; Christians have likewise applied these mighty phrases to Jesus Christ. So Jesus Christ, like Moses and like David before him, is a mighty leader, an organizer, a rescuer, a guide, a supporter, or, as St. Peter acknowledges in today’s Gospel verse, “the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Unlike many animals, both wild and tame, sheep have no herding instinct. They do not gather together in meadows as horses and cattle do, nor do they roam together about the countryside like wolves and dogs. No, sheep just follow their noses stuck in the grass to their own peril. They are unaware of the nearing cliff or the nasty brambles or the approaching wolf. Sheep desperately need a shepherd.
Mankind too is often bereft of any sense of community. The litany of self-centeredness — greed and anger, envy and jealousy, sloth and gluttony, pride and lust — alienates and divides families, friends, and nations. Jesus has come to correct humanity’s fallen state: “I came so that they might have life and have it to the full.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, pledges sure guidance and powerful direction leading to the fullness of spiritual life here and eternal life hereafter.
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