There’s just no way of getting around it. Heroes are like shepherds who rescue a lost sheep. You can carry on all you want about the unwisdom of chasing after lost lambs, the reckless leaving of the flock, and the large heartedness involved here, but, though classic heroes do rush in where angels fear to tread, you just can’t make the reckless shepherd into a figure of valor, noble action, battle beauty, and glorious victory.
Heroes, in the biblical tradition, are shepherds. Literal shepherds in the Old Testament. And thanks largely to the gospel of John, luminously symbolic shepherds in the New Testament. There’s no getting around the biblical fact, presented in story after story after story: the heart of God hankers after shepherds.
The Lord is my shepherd, according to the 23rd Psalm, and this image of God is cast with a care and devotion that extends to Jesus, born in the presence of shepherds and growing into the Good Shepherd of the world.
It’s easy to undervalue the image. Israel’s long history of living as semi-nomadic herders made sheep central to their economy, and so the image of God as shepherd is a reasonable one. But dependence on herds was also huge in much of Europe, yet the Roman pantheon of Gods leaned toward warriors, and their warrior gods dominated their empire. And the Celtic pantheon, which filled the religious imagination of Greece, Spain, France and the British Isles, extolled the warrior to such a degree that the chief of all gods, Lugh or Lleu, was known for his magical spear, his legendary sword, chariot and horse, and his many warring adventures.
The God of Israel is no warrior. The Shepherd God of Israel herds the people safely through perils: floods, famine, bondage, fear of strong men with powerful spears and swords, who may win a battle here and there, who may even march the people into exile in Babylon, but the Shepherd God will rescue them in the days to come.
At the start, there was Abel, the beloved and eternally innocent son, whose offering of a sheep pleased God deeply and whose blood and purity are part of our souls forever.
Noah, the Shepherd Archetype, herded all God’s creatures safely to the New Earth, then got drunk and lay around naked and besotted, God’s beloved who is remembered forever for his great deed-doing, but never seen as a divine hero.
And then there was Abraham, a nomadic herder to whom, despite his erring ways, God gave the promise of offspring numbering more than the stars.
Abraham’s twin grandsons, Esau and Jacob, begin adult life as shepherd and cook; and Jacob the cook was a bad guy, while Esau the herder was beloved; but in exile Jacob became a shepherd of reknown, and in that new identity Jacob received God’s particular blessing.
In the era of the kings, David, the greatest King, was a shepherd boy who wrote love songs to God, and all his older, stronger, more handsome brothers were passed over for the kingship till God’s eye fell on this young shepherd. God’s heart was smitten.
Turning the pages to the New Testament, lo! here are shepherds in the stable, viewing the Christ Child – shepherds, who received an invitation to see the Babe from the entire heavenly chorus. Only shepherds were invited, no one else. And this is the first time in the biblical record that angels sang to people — and it is shepherds to whom they sing.
John’s gospel names Jesus the Lamb of God, and also describes him as the Gate and the Gatekeeper to the sheepfold, and most powerfully, as the Good Shepherd. But now the name Shepherd has become symbolic, for Jesus’ trade was carpentry, and perhaps he fished a time or two, but he spent no time among the sheep. And the sheep are also symbolic, the sheep are the people of God.
And now there is a distinction between shepherds. Before John’s gospel, there have been no bad shepherds. The various villains were mainly kings but also some queens, prophets of Baal, drunken sots, court betrayers. John adds a shadow to the shepherd image. Good shepherd, bad shepherd, there are to be distinctions.
But John does not point to other religious figures, other prophets of Israel, or even foreign gods, as the bad shepherds. Those who desert the people in times of trouble are the same evildoers the people have known of old, corrupt politicians, wicked kings, religious fakirs: Pilate, Herod, and Caesar. They usurp the role of shepherd, leading the people into places and times which are snares, and they abandon the people to face falling fortunes helplessly.
The essential quality of true shepherds never leads to abandonment. The shepherd shares with the sheep a fundamental knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for the shepherd until there is peace and joy finally for the sheep, too.
This quality, this compassion, is the vaunted quality of the Shepherd God, and is the quality the Shepherd God seeks in everyone. The Good Shepherd stays with the sheep, in all that befalls. This staying, this Presence, is what is holy. Not valor. Not swordsmanship. Not battle glory. Not beauty of weaponry, nor even skill. Presence, even in the valley of the shadow of death, offering the hope of return from peril. These are the leaders the Shepherd God seeks for this world, and this is the holiness the Shepherd God bestows.
1. The Young Christ as the Good Shepherd, Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban, 1617-1682, Museum of Fine Arts,Boston. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Good Shepherd Mosaic. Catacomb of Callixtus, Mid 3rd Century, Rome. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Good Shepherd Mosaic. 5th Cent. Ravenna, Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4. The Good Shepherd, Le Breton, Jacques, 1508-1519, Cathedrale dAmiens, Amiens, France. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
5. Jesus as Shepherd of Lost Sheep, unidentified 20th c, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
6. Good Shepherd. Dupre, Julien, late 19th c. California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.