In Jeremiah 23:1, 2, 4, we hear about the deficiencies of earthly shepherds. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the LORD. “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the LORD. “Shepherd” is a word with more than one meaning.
Shepherds are responsible for protecting and providing sustenance for their flocks, keeping peace within the flock, defending against attackers, searching for sheep that have gone astray, and rescuing those who are in danger. The shepherd, and by analogy the king, is expected to act for the well-being of the sheep. Though we can think about actual shepherds who tend livestock, more importantly, what does this mean for those of us who serve in shepherding roles in the Church? What is the sustenance we should be offering? What would the good shepherd look like in our humanity? Attentive to justice, protection, mercy, and righteousness, for sure, but I think there is more. I think it is about more than just physical sustenance and care, but about providing direction.
In Psalm 23: 2, 3, 4, we hear of the Lord as shepherd:
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.
As I focused upon the teaching aspects of shepherding, I was drawn not only to the “leading” and “directing” but to seeing that it is because of this leading and teaching that the psalmist can sense that the Lord, not a physical person, is present. This presence sensed in one’s internal being, that whole sense of life, not just the physical, that is contemplated by the Hebrew word, nefesh. By being able to rely upon this teaching felt as presence within, the psalmist can overcome fears and can sense that caring and providing. The rod and staff that at times prods us forward, and at times draws us back to where we can have life.
So when I then contemplate Mark 6:54-56, and Jesus as shepherd, the imagery again is about more than physical care. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Jesus has compassion- one of my favorite words in Greek, splagchnizomai. It can mean sympathy, mercy, and loving concern, but my favorite part about it is that it is deep inner core emotion, the same visceral gut emotion of the father for the lost son in the story of the Prodigal. In the depth of this sense of caring, it seems to be more than tending to people who are sick and need a physical cure because the compassion is connected to the first then we are told Jesus does, to care for the inner being, and a sense of being “with” that person. "They were like sheep without a shepherd." There are lots of modern metaphors for being lost, but I tend to think of the concept of being at wit’s end.” Feeling totally dependent and totally abandoned- that no one is with us. That feeling that no amount of Band-aids, hugs or things done “to” people can erase. That deep “in our gut” feeling. Maybe Jesus is matching our feelings, gut to gut. What does Jesus do? "…he began to teach them many things" (Mark 6:34). Deep down we need more than a quick fix, we need a roadmap. In The Wounded Storyteller, one person whose world has been turned upside down by chronic illness talks about a sense that the roadmap he had been using in life suddenly becoming worthless, and that sense of existential despair; of having no way to navigate the journey. POW’s who have survived imprisonment are often found to have survived emotionally by recalling Scripture, liturgy, and hymns as a way of sustenance. Persons with dementia continue to find comfort in the same. I remember one older gentleman whose sense of reality was robbed by dementia. In many ways much of his day was spent in some world only his mind saw, and he was often agitated. But when he was brought communion, he would suddenly spring into the words of the liturgy as he had his whole life. And for the length of that time, and whenever we would recite his favorite Scripture, he was not that lost sheep. So it would seem to make sense that the Gospel would be critical to giving that sense of direction in which one finds the presence of God, and the caring of God that allows one to rise above fear- the Lord as shepherd in what has been taught and internalized. When I think about the compassion Jesus felt which led him to teach, it made me ponder- that teaching is what we keep in our hearts and minds. Which is worse, facing some physical concern, or facing that sense of being lost with no one to turn to and no roadmap for the journey? My experiences in chaplaincy tell me it is the latter- our hearts and minds can be awfully empty places without the word/Word to cling to. I have to agree with Mark Vitalis Hoffman who encourages understanding “education as an expression of compassionate evangelism. Yes, there are all sorts of ways we can express compassion by attending to the pressing physical needs people have, but it is just as important for us to be educating them by clearly and faithfully speaking the Gospel.” I can’t say it any better than that.