Breath of the Spirit: Good Shepherd, But Not Always Good To Be a Shepherd
Today’s gospel suggests that the primary response to loving Jesus is caring for one another. Today’s reflection suggests – if we look at the lived experience of shepherds in Jesus’ time – this is not an easy task! The images of shepherds, sheep, and lambs are prevalent in the Scriptures, but our experience of them is often so remote that we romanticize and sanitize them until the power of the original metaphor is practically lost upon us. What does it mean to be Lamb of God? Or a good shepherd? What images did those words conjure up in the minds of those who heard them in ancient Palestine and Greece and beyond? Although we cannot know for sure, today’s reflection portrays these metaphors as visceral images of ordinary people giving their lives for the safety and well-being of their community. The implication: if we purport to love Jesus, our response ought to be the same.
May 1, 2022: Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Good Shepherd, But Not Always Good To Be a Shepherd
A reflection by Marianne Seggerman
I recall a homily given years ago by the priest in my local parish on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He started telling us about...sheep. What stupid animals they were. Today’s gospel and the second reading both mention lambs. That got me wondering about shepherds. Specifically, shepherds around the year 30 CE in Judea. In the gospel, Peter has gone back to fishing but the resurrected Jesus has other ideas as to what his occupation should be – that of a shepherd. By the way, the fish they are catching were likely tilapia, or at least in today's Israel that is what they call St Peter’s fish. Although by the time of today’s first reading, Peter has hung up the nets and embarked wholeheartedly on the role Jesus set out.
So, what did the job description of a shepherd entail circa 30 CE? Today the only shepherds I can think of were the boys in Brokeback Mountain trying to hold together that huge flock. Back in Jesus's time the job had long hours - weren't shepherds watching their fields by night in Luke’s depiction of the nativity? – and they worked in all weather. Come to think of it, the same goes for fishermen. It was an especially tough way to eke out a living. Both jobs were connected with the food supply, which means they were especially important – people have to eat. Unlike smarter livestock – and in the case of cows – bigger – the sheer cluelessness of sheep required their shepherds be always on the alert because they were less able to fend off predators.
The lamb also figures prominently – both in the readings and in Catholic ritual today. What was it in that young animal which made it such a common symbol? Today when we think of lambs we think of purity, innocence. Like many young animals, lambs are cute. Did the writers of today’s readings have that in mind when so many of them would end up… eaten? Scholars assume that the authors of the Christian Scriptures are recalling the symbolism of the Passover account, the “unblemished lamb” (Exodus 12:5) that would provide the ritual meal so the Israelites would be saved from the angel of death and freed from slavery. But we will never know exactly what the authors of those passages had in mind when using the young sheep metaphor. They must have assumed their readers would have considerably more knowledge of animal husbandry than we do. They certainly would have seen many sheep being slain for food. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12). It was likely a symbolic reminder that Jesus died – like so many sheep – so that the community would survive.
All this obsessing with shepherds and sheep does raise one point – and a vital one at that. What are we, 21st-Century Catholics [hopefully] on the more progressive end, to make of the symbols and symbolism in the Bible? How can we use them to inform and deepen our faith, when the images and meaning at the times of their writing were so very different? How can we understand when Jesus anoints Peter shepherd – we think of a gentle, caring soul – the disciples would think smelly, and sleep deprived? We think of lambs as cute and bounding around their mother, but in earlier times people would have seen them as being slaughtered so people could eat, which is to say, survive. Does that explain why the Lamb of God imagery became so prominent in ritual? I don’t have an answer, but it sure seems that these images of lambs and shepherds both call us to give our lives out of concern for one another. It is not romantic or pretty, it is the mundane, difficult work of loving our fellow humans. Not cute or sweet, but the job description of those of us who seek to be disciples.
Marianne Seggerman joined the chapter of Dignity New Haven around 30 years ago. That chapter is no longer, alas, but she continues to attend the biannual conference. In her day job she is a computer programmer living (and for the moment working) in Westport, Connecticut. She is in a long-term relationship with a person raised Jewish who converted to the Mormon faith.