Three of today’s four readings use the image of the Great Shepherd – and this holy metaphor of shepherd and sheep (and Lamb of God) has become so familiar that we sometimes take it for granted. It also loses power with most of us because few of us (myself included) experience, or come close to fully understanding, the cultural milieu of what was still a largely agrarian society and the particular hardships involved in tending sheep – especially in a semi-desert environment where predators prowl.
But if you read enough and listen enough to those who do know, you can intellectually comprehend, even if you don’t automatically intuit it at your very core, that the role of the shepherd was not merely passive and certainly not idyllic, but rather active and challenging. For Christ to be a Shepherd for us, therefore, is not for Him to merely stand watch at a distance and gently corral us when we wander too far, but rather for Him to energetically and selflessly guide us, protect us, and be willing to sacrifice for us.
And when we are hurt or ill, in body or soul, He heals us and “restores [our] souls” (Psalm 23),will “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Revelation), and, most wonderfully, “give [us] eternal life, and [we] will never perish” (John).
And speaking of healing, the fourth reading does not mention shepherd or sheep, but it does tell of one of the most dramatic of all the healing stories in the Bible, one that ranks up there with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps even more miraculously, this story from Acts of Tabitha being raised from the dead does not even come about through the direct action of Christ, but rather from Peter in carrying out Christ’s commission to spread the Gospel and build the church.
As it is written, Peter “knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He have her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”
This is mind-boggling stuff. And it holds lessons for us. Christ is there, yes, to be a Shepherd to us, but He also commissions us to care for and, to the best of our ability, to heal each other. He gives us powers of healing and of grace, to and for each other, in ways we ourselves may not even fathom as we act, in compassion for each other, as vessels of His grace.
Our life on Earth is wonderful in many, many ways, but it also holds so much sorrow that it can (at times) seem like an ordeal. Thus, the protecting, guiding, and healing Shepherd is monumentally important to help us all through it, and where He does not seem to act directly, He commissions us to shepherd each other, too.
And we, too, can join the multitude, robed in white (in the reading from Revelation), who have “come out of the great ordeal…. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, and the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life.”
If we are His sheep, we have an abundance for which we should be thankful.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.