God Our Shepherd!

Psalm 100:3

Know that the LORD is God!
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Being city folk we tend to hear biblical references to “God our shepherd” or to us as his “sheep” in terms of sentimental greeting cards.  All those blue-eyed, blonde Jesuses from Sunday school art or paintings on the walls of nursing homes come rushing back to us and we say “Awwwww.  How sweet!”  But for an Iron Age pastoral people sheep and shepherds did not necessarily have these gooey connotations.  For one thing, sheep are dumb.  Really dumb.  So calling us “the sheep of his pasture” is not to be construed as a big boost to our pride.  It is to say that we, like sheep, pretty much have to be under God’s watchful eye at all times or we are likely to walk off a cliff or do some other stupid thing.  Such rebukes to pride, while not always our first preference, are a healthy tonic.  Likewise, likening God to a shepherd was, for the original hearers, a startling image.  Middle Eastern gods tended to be portrayed as all-conquering heroes, treading down the foe like grass.  Comparing God to a shepherd was, for an ancient used to this sort of martial imagery, like comparing God to a parking lot attendant.  “Shepherd” was a job description for losers and factory rejects.  That is why 1 Samuel is careful to note that David was a shepherd: it makes the story of his rise to power all the more impressive (“He is not only the runt of Jesse’s litter, he’s a shepherd!  The dregs of society!  Look how far he came!”).  But David the shepherd learned something about the humility of God out there in the fields with those sheep.  And that revelation of God’s humility made it into his poetry, and into our deepest assumptions about who God is, so that what was once shocking is now taken by us for a cliche.  Today, see the humility of the Good Shepherd with ancient (and therefore new) eyes so that it is, once again, the shocking truth.

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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