Years ago I had a priest friend with a very laid-back sense of humor — hard to know whether he was serious or joking. One day I was introducing him (who rarely wore clerical garb) to some friends of mine, one of whom asked him what his line of work was. With a straight face he answered, “I’m a shepherd.” “Oh, really?” she replied. “That is so interesting! Where, may I ask?” And without missing a beat, Ray said, “In Jersey City.”
At that point I intervened and informed my friends that Ray was a priest and that his work was in the city.
The incident left me with the unforgettable image of a man leading a hundred sheep across Broad Street amidst horns beeping and drivers cursing! I have seen the real thing in both Israel and Ireland, and to a suburbanite like me it was a treat.
However, Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. St. John, alone among the four Gospel writers, has Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd. After his death and resurrection, his followers seem to have paid little attention to his real occupation and styled him instead as the Shepherd, not the Good Carpenter. You have to wonder why they and John made that choice.
The carpenter becomes a creator, fashioning things of lasting strength and beauty. I think of it as one of the noblest and most artistic of crafts.
But the work of the shepherd involves something uniquely different: the shepherd has the care of other living creatures. To the extent that he loves them and labors for them, to the extent that he is willing to inconvenience himself — even making personal sacrifices for their benefit — will those dependent creatures be happy and secure. I believe Jesus admired that about shepherds and that John saw those very qualities in him, and therefore called him the Good Shepherd.
This is interesting because as far as we know Jesus never took care of sheep as an owner or as a hired hand, so his talk about shepherding has directly to do not with sheep but with us. He cares for us, he guards us, protects us, feeds and heals us; he binds our wounds and nurses us to spiritual health; he provides the rehabilitating rest that our tired, battered spirits crave.
An elderly friend of my brother died several years ago. For a long time, he and his wife had not been churchgoers, although their Protestant faith was still deep in their hearts. At the wake service, his daughter told me that a week before his death he said he knew that he was dying but that no one should be upset because “I know Jesus will take care of me.” He apparently understood well the concept of the Good Shepherd.
It could not be clearer that what Jesus wants of us is that we cultivate a “shepherdly” attitude toward each other, discerning always how we can enhance each other’s lives, not merely by giving off the top from our abundance and our surplus, but by sacrificing when necessary, doing what at the moment we may not want to do; monitoring our words, that can so easily hurt; refraining from saying what would make the other sad or disturbed; giving when it appears risky; and so forth.
Certainly it would be absurd for us to expect that the whole world will suddenly turn to such altruistic behavior, but you and I can turn more in that direction today and discover again what peace and happiness await the person who, not just in words but in daily action, imitates Jesus, the Good Shepherd.