Been thinking about shepherds today.
Shepherds have never been popular people. In Bible times they were always lowest on the totem pole, in even a caste-system kind of way. They were smelly and dirty. They were ceremonially unclean from a religious standpoint because of the time they spent with the animals, and they broke the religious law by working on the Sabbath (some people believed if everyone stopped sinning, even for one day, the Messiah would come, and the shepherds were always messing it up). Their sheep were bad for the crops and they ruined the grazing for cattle, giving people an economic reason to hate them, and people like the Egyptians viewed sheep as useless for food or sacrifice. People also tend to distrust those who are nomadic, like gypsies, and have prejudice against them because they are foreigners and they are not likely to be well-dressed or well-groomed (a little like when we arrive somewhere tired and sweaty after a long day of travel, only without the a/c and other modern luxuries we likely enjoyed).
I was reminded today of the low status shepherds had, that they were just detestable to people and automatic second-class citizens. I knew that God honored shepherds repeatedly throughout the Bible (he chose shepherds to receive the original covenant and promise, he chose shepherd boy David to defeat the giant and become king, he chose shepherds to be prophets, and the recipients of the announcement of the birth of the Messiah), but today I realized for the first time: God calls himself a shepherd! What humility is that, that the God of the universe would lower himself to be identified with the most despised of occupations, the most despised of people?
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Why would he do that?
There could be a variety of reasons, including a desire for people to understand that his blessing is available to all, that he does not favor anyone according to human criteria, just like all the times he honored women and second-born sons and sinners. But the biggest reason I believe he would bestow such an honor on the occupation of shepherd, call himself the Good Shepherd?
“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
Because he values sheep. He values them above anything else.
We are his sheep. Children are his sheep. Elderly people are his sheep. Orphans and widows are sheep especially dear to his heart. Outcasts are his sheep. The lonely are his sheep. Those who entrust themselves to his care are his sheep, and he thinks of them fondly, tenderly. Those who don’t entrust themselves to his care are his sheep, too, and he has a special, desperate, determined place in his heart for them, for those who are wandering spiritually and don’t know the Way. He’d leave the others to go rescue a sheep like that. He’d do anything for them.
“Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.'” -Luke 15:3-7
I’ve been fumbling and struggling a bit in my role as a mother this week, feeling beaten down by the never-ending tasks that don’t appear to be amounting to anything significant. But God says that to be a shepherd is a noble calling. He values shepherds. He says their work is of utmost importance, and he needs people willing to do it.
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” John 21:16
There is a little sheep in my care. And some bigger ones in my life and across my path, too. If I am to be like Jesus, I must value sheep, too. Above everything else. Above my to-do list, above social status, above my free time, above my convenience, above my reputation. It’s not what the world and my own selfishness have trained me to think, but He says they are what’s most important.
There is immense value in caregiving, in caregivers, in those who need care, he tells me. A much appreciated encouragement and admonition. I need to value my sheep above everything else. And I should value my role as shepherd, too. God promises great reward to faithful shepherds.
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” 1 Peter 5:2-4
I read a quote from Ann Voskamp this week that spoke the same thing to me. “Live backwards.” she says. “From Well done, good and faithful servant — work your life backward from that.” Focus your days on that.
And I don’t have to do it alone. The Lord is my shepherd. And he cares about these sheep, even more than I do. He is shepherding them, too.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.” -Psalm 23:1
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” -Isaiah 40:11
The Lord graciously allows me to participate in this noble Shepherd work. I get to witness a beautiful little life unfolding each day, to help it along. I can stop and really see my son, see his heart, stand in awe of the sacred beauty that’s right in front of me in those so-called ‘ordinary’ moments. It sounds better that it often looks or feels when there are dishes and tears and limited hours in the day and a limited me. But couldn’t we choose to look past the hard work, the drudgery, the mundane, and really see the people around us and recognize what a gift it is that they’re there and that we have the power to touch them with our lives, even those with whom we only exchange a passing hello? To focus our days so that priority is given to what’s most important: people, and loving God by being faithful to care for what he has entrusted to our care? We only have so much time to do it.
So I will focus on shepherding, and being led myself by the Good Shepherd.
“Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:16-17
“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
“‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
“‘I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of savage beasts so that they may live in the wilderness and sleep in the forests in safety. I will make them and the places surrounding my hill a blessing. I will send down showers in season; there will be showers of blessing. The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They will no longer be plundered by the nations, nor will wild animals devour them. They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid. I will provide for them a land renowned for its crops, and they will no longer be victims of famine in the land or bear the scorn of the nations. Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the Israelites, are my people, declares the Sovereign Lord. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” Exekiel 34:11-31