In his youth, a Jesuit friend of mine had been an actual shepherd. I asked him what that must have been like.
I suppose my ulterior motive was that three of our readings today have references to shepherds.
But he surprised me.
He said he had hated that job and would never go near it again. There were so many sheep in a herd that you could never know which was which, much less give names to them, and that sheep-dogs were the only way you could keep them more or less together in a herd.
Was my friend a “bad shepherd” like the ones we find in the First Reading? Not at all. He was an outstanding shepherd of people, in spite of this youthful experience. But in our day the tending of sheep is an industry, not a personal act.
The flocks were small in Jesus’ day. A shepherd could indeed name each one and the herd knew his voice by heart, just as the family dog knows yours.
So, in Jesus’ day, good shepherds would search and search for a lost sheep. Or find one turned absurdly on its back, unable to roll over again because of its full fleece. The shepherd took his “crook,” which had a big curve on one end, and easily maneuver the sheep to its feet. If there was real danger, as for instance if wolves were ready to pounce, the shepherd would take out his “staff,” a pole-like instrument, and deal with the predators.
Bad shepherds, on the other hand, would actually scatter the sheep; drive them away without care. The sheep feared and trembled, and many went missing. Sometimes workers were hired who were not shepherds at all and who simply ran away when a wolf approached (Jn 10:12). God’s anger flamed out against such bad shepherds.
Of course these sheep and shepherds were symbols representing God’s people and their rulers.
In the Responsorial Psalm, Jesus was the Good Shepherd. What about the Gospel? So many people were coming and going that Jesus and his apostles “had no opportunity even to eat.” He advised his friends to come away with him to a quiet place to rest. Even shepherds must take a break. They used a boat to go to a deserted area.
But the needy people saw where the boat was headed and they went there and formed a “vast crowd”! What should Jesus do? Start ministering again instead of resting? The Gospel says “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd,” so “he began to teach them many things.”
God’s words in the First Reading had come true: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock and bring them back to their meadow.”
The question for you and me is not whether we should go without our rest and food and become workaholics for the sake of others.
It is whether our own hearts are ever moved with pity for the scattered and fear-filled sheep of our own time. Can we love them as Jesus does? As he loves each of us?
Can we imitate God’s good shepherd?