By: Rosanna M.
Date: April 29, 2023
As a Catholic who has experienced suffering in past years due to chronic illness and trauma, I have spent some time reflecting on the image of the Good Shepherd. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, the one who cares lovingly for His sheep, who gave His life for us when He experienced His Passion and died on the Cross. But what does this exactly mean to us nearly 2000 years later? Is this something we can understand, when many of us are separated from the pastoral life living in crowded cities with more technology than we know what to do with? A recent bout with illness forced me to slow down and pause many elements of my life, and to seek again this Good Shepherd that I have begun learning about.
In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic rite, the fourth Sunday after Easter is celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday. In the traditional calendar, it was on the third Sunday after Easter. The Gospel passage read this day is John 10:11-15 (RSV-CE):
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (1).
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is not just allegory. The Good Shepherd is not merely doing his duty in caring for the sheep, but He gives ALL for them, to protect them and to provide for them. I must admit when experiencing illness, I have been tempted to despair of this help. There were times that were so dark I wondered if anyone did care. I wanted something else than what was happening to me. Where was this Shepherd? Was He still leading me? I was forced to patiently wait in desperate hope that perhaps He was still there.
Psalm 23 is the Psalm of the Good Shepherd, a well-loved prayer from the Old Testament. It is ascribed to David, the first king of Israel who lived in the tenth century BC (2), and who likely composed this psalm when he fled from Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, escaping his son Absalom who tried to usurp his power (3). It shows the confidence that David had in God for providing him with his needs.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (RSV-CE, 4)
David was a shepherd before he was anointed king. But here as the psalmist, he speaks of himself not as a shepherd but as one of the sheep tended by the Good Shepherd. David surely knew that sheep require much more care than other livestock, and that their survival is very much dependent on the what they receive from their shepherd (5). If properly managed, however, sheep provide great profit and blessing for the shepherd in return. They can actually benefit the land as their foraging habits cause them to graze on a wide variety of plants and weeds, controlling their spread; their manure is saturated with nutrients which enriches the soils; and they provide milk, meat, and wool for the shepherd. The sheep, being docile creatures, also return some affection to their Shepherd, which He delights in (6).
Sheep tend to be quite timid in nature but also stubborn, and in Isaiah 53:6 (RSV-CE) we read: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (7). Despite mankind's frequent rebellions against their Creator, God ordained that He would become incarnate in Jesus Christ, and shepherd His people to bring them salvation. W. Phillip Keller states in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, that ". . . the Good Shepherd spares no pains for the welfare of his sheep" (8). This eventually meant the bloody sacrifice of the Cross, and the glorious Resurrection that followed the third day.
Like Jesus, David was originally from Bethlehem, and he would have been very familiar with the terrain of the region under his rule. Much of this area was dry, brown ground, and not the green pastures alluded to in Psalm 23. The green pastures are supplied for by the hard work of the shepherd to provide for his flock. He would diligently work the land, growing grasses and legumes for the sheep to graze on. This was like God's promise to the people of Israel, when Moses led them from Egypt, to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Good grazing ground provided the ewes with enough milk for feeding their lambs. The forage plants of the green fields supplied the bees with enough pollen to make honey (9). The people benefited from both and God provided for them all.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death is literally part of the Jordan River system that traverses the desert region from Jericho up to Jerusalem. It is a deep, dark, and narrow valley where travellers often encountered many dangers, including robbers and murderers (10). The still waters in this valley come from springs that feed the Jordan River, where some distance upstream John the Baptist baptized Jesus at the start of His mission. This valley is also where the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) takes place (11). The Good Samaritan, like the Good Shepherd, made a considerable sacrifice of his time and his means to care for the traveller who was attacked on his journey. This valley has more significance in biblical history than we can even attempt to address in this post.
Shepherds had many changing details to attend to in the yearly cycle of pasturing their sheep. In the summer months, shepherds often brought their sheep to high plateaus, called mesas (Spanish for "table"). The shepherds would try to inspect these fields for possible predators and poisonous plants, and to secure safe watering holes by clearing out the stones or branches within them (12). They would also anoint the heads and bodies of the sheep with a mixture of olive oil and sulphur to protect against insects and parasites that pestered them (13).
While this pastoral care was quite literal at that particular time, the meaning extends even to modern times as is seen in the Sacramental liturgy of the Catholic Church. The table prepared in the psalm is now the Table of the Eucharist, where the Body and Blood of Christ are consecrated and received by the faithful (14). The head is anointed with oil, as is done in Baptism with the Chrism, in Holy Orders when priests are ordained, and in the Anointing of the Sick. Each of us is called to participate in this New Covenant with our Shepherd.
The psalmist says that his "cup overflows" and that he will "dwell in the house of the Lord forever". This refers to the generous gifts received by the faithful from God in the past Davidic Kingdom, our present time in the Church with Holy Communion, and in the future heaven where the saved are promised a room in one of the Lord's mansions. The Good Shepherd knows His own and they know Him. He will provide for them.
When ill this past time, I was not able to attend the Mass to receive the Sacraments for some weeks, and I keenly felt this absence. All I could do was briefly pray to God and trust that he was still leading me. My time in the deep, dark, narrow valley was longer than I felt I was able to endure but there was an exit. Only by going through the valley, following but not seeing the path laid out by my Shepherd, I came to the open field.
I wish I could say that I learned much and that now I am wiser, but this hardly feels like so and that still remains to be seen. All I know is that I suffered, but I read often and I trust that He was with me during this time. He can use this for some good, whether or not I am aware of this pending good. Jesus said that He has taken our suffering upon Himself, and He has sanctified it with His. My suffering was and still is in His hands.
The Good Shepherd knows me and what I go through, and I will know Him, in part because of what I experience that helps unite me to Him. Others may not know my struggles, but He does and He will provide the way. I must trust that if I faithfully remain in His flock, He will leave me contented with all I could need or want. I pray that I will limit the complaining I do about suffering, and that I will be grateful for it, hoping one day to have my dwelling in His mansions with Him.
1. John 10:11-16 (RSV-CE): https://biblia.com/books/rsvce/Jn10.
2. Bergsma, John, and Brant Pitre. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: the Old Testament. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2018. 569.
3. Yatim, Rami. "The Lord is My Shepherd." Tours with Rami. August 4, 2020. 21:12. https://vimeo.com/444316210/4b763d3e80?embedded=true&source=video_title&owner=119408290.
Accessed: 10 February, 2023.
4. Psalm 23 (RSV-CE): https://biblia.com/books/rsvce/Ps23. 5. Keller, W. Phillip. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1970, 2007. 18-22.
6. Keller. 157-58.
7. Isaiah 53:6 (RSV-CE): https://biblia.com/bible/rsvce/isaiah/53/6.
8. Keller. 22.
9. Keller. 52-55.
12. Keller. 125-32.
13. Keller. 137-40.
14. Bergsma, Pitre. 592.