Once, as a guest commentator with a bus load of thirty-eight tourists in the Holy Land, I had a chance to observe what Near Eastern shepherds do. We took a safari vehicle into the Judean wilderness, where we encountered a Bedouin herder watering his flock of sheep and goats. Water for the herd came not from a spring-fed well but from a cistern, which had collected rain water during the winter, thanks to channels carved into the hillside diverting the flow to this deep hole protected by a metal cover secured by lock and key. The cover was the descendant of the ancient security measure of a large stone moveable only by the combined strength of the male members of an extended family. Our Bedouin had unlocked the modem cover and was hauling up pails full of cool, clear water and pouring it into hollowed out stone basins so his herd could drink.
These two moments illustrated vividly what shepherds do: they nurture and they protect. That sense of a shepherd's role is evident in Jeremiah's image of Israel’s failed leadership on the eve of the Babylonian captivity. Kings had failed to provide the direction that made for nurture and safety. The only hope lay in divine intervention. The Lord himself would shepherd the people by raising up “a righteous branch for David.”
Mark draws on this prophetic tradition to describe Jesus. The evangelist has just told the grisly story of Herod's birthday party and the beheading of the Baptist—a reminder that Israel was still a hostile environment for prophets. Now Mark speaks of Jesus shepherding exhausted disciples to a private place for rest. This proves a vain effort, as the needy clients, coming “from all the towns,” find their hiding place even before they get there. Jesus’ response is telling: “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
The message is clear and powerful. Even before feeding, what people need from their shepherd is the sense of direction that comes from teaching.
For two millennia we have spontaneously applied the title of shepherd to our pope and bishops. If Jesus risen is the primary shepherd, we have always recognized that the community requires ongoing local and global leaders to apply the teaching of Jesus in ways that ensure nurturing and safety. The flock need a sense of direction that can only come from designated exponents of the Petrine and apostolic ministries. We may differ in our assessment of their performance, but Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—generally agree that without teaching shepherds, there can be no unity.
The question of capital punishment still has great prominence. On this issue, the general population is of several minds, while the voices of our Church's shepherds are remarkably unified. Our media present the pros and cons. Pro: he, if anyone, deserves death; terrorists need a clear signal that society will not tolerate such violence; victims' families need his death for closure. Contra: one more death subtracts nothing from the victims; capital punishment will not deter terrorists, who are willing to die for their cause and will see in an executed killer a martyr to inspire them; further killing heals no grief.
Our shepherds—the U.S. bishops and our pope frequently in recent years—offer deeper direction. They observe that the spirit of Christ urges us to meet the “culture of death” with a consistent ethic of life, and that in our historical situation (with bloodless alternatives to protect the public order and the common good) the death penalty is warranted virtually never. To this strong direction from the shepherds, the response of the flock has been remarkably scattered.