The Good Shepherd
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 right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4
Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date. I disagree. In fact, I believe God taking on the face and role of a shepherd is one of the most meaningful and insightful analogies about God’s relationship to us. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As we better understand God and God’s workings with and through us, we realize that most of us seldom lack anything we actually need, certainly not for extended periods. We often desire more than we have, but that is another issue entirely. Obviously, there are parts of the world, including in the United States, where there are people who lack necessities like sufficient food and shelter. I believe God, the good shepherd, attempts to take care of those needs by encouraging the rest of us to share our abundance to help meet those needs. A shepherd does not feed the sheep; a shepherd assures there is food available for the sheep to eat.
My mother raised sheep as a teenager, and I remember her telling me how dumb they were. Her experience was that if they were not watched constantly, they would invent trouble to fall into. It was as if the sheep simply trusted that a shepherd was watching over them at all times, protecting them from life’s perils, regardless of what they did. (Perhaps sheep are not dumb, just faithful.) The third verse of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me…” According to mom, her sheep would mindlessly wander into any dark valley available.
I tend to think of shepherds as necessary in open fields, where there is no fencing to keep the sheep contained within a certain area. Of course, it is still possible for sheep to find themselves in trouble in a confined area, but it limits the possibilities. The point is that the days of the shepherd being physically present with the sheep 24 hours a day, at least on modern farms, are probably over.
Even contained within a fenced field, and even with regular access to food and water, sheep can find themselves in danger. Coyotes and other predatory animals love nothing better than fresh lamb chops, and fences alone will not keep predators from easy access to the sheep. This is perhaps where the image of God as our shepherd becomes more meaningful. A shepherd does not create the dangers for the sheep, any more than God creates dangers for us. Danger is inherent in the world around us. A shepherd seeks to protect the sheep from the dangers that are naturally present. When danger cannot be avoided, however, a good shepherd stands with the sheep so they do not have to face the danger alone. While God may not physically intervene between us and threats, God does remain with us throughout the danger. As I hinted earlier, God also relies on us to help care for God’s sheep. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus’ answer? “Tend my sheep.” Understanding God as our shepherd does not imply that God is or needs to be physically present with us. It does mean, however, that God inspires others to help in our time of need, just as God encourages us to help others in our times of abundance. We are, after all, the hands and feet of a very good shepherd.
Note: this is the fifteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.