By George O’Reilly
Transitional Conference Leader
Having never been to present-day Israel or Palestine, the historical setting of much of the biblical stories and events of our Christian heritage, I have never observed “shepherding” in that regional and cultural context. I have seen sheep freely pasturing on the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland and in the lush green fields of Ireland’s central farm land. I have observed “shepherding” in Northern Arizona as a young person living on the Navajo Reservation. In that climate, rain is quite sparse indeed in a region designated as “semi-arid wasteland” by the US Bureau of Land Management. Coarse brush and tough weeds prevail, with only sparse scatterings of grass and other plants useful for pasturing sheep or raising cattle. Quite a dramatic difference indeed!
I have imagined the hills of Palestine to be much more similar to the sparse grasses of Northern Arizona than to the lush fields of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such different environments require dramatically different practices in shepherding or pasturing sheep. In the more lush portions of Ireland, for example, sheep may be pastured in large fenced areas where dark green grass is abundant and water always close at hand. In Northern Arizona, shepherds —more often than not young boys or girls or sometimes old women — spent much of their time following a slow-moving flock through fairly large areas as they sought out the infrequent patches of grass among the brush and large weeds. They also had to know to what area they should herd the flock before beginning the somewhat leisurely — if not boring — task of waiting until the sheep had found most of the grass in an area and then herding them on to the next selected area of feeding.
One interpretation I might draw from these varied experiences is that the best shepherds order their task to aid the flock to flourish “organically” where the flock actually lives. To adopt the shepherding practice of each other’s regions would be foolish indeed! To move sheep repeatedly around in Northern Ireland would simply not work in the first place since there is no “open range,” but only separately owned and managed pastures. To pen the flock on a limited area in Arizona would be a disaster, since with the lack of sufficient forage the sheep would waste away and be famished.
If we consider this notion with the images of the sheep and shepherds of various biblical passages, we may begin to perceive that the orientation of the shepherd must always be the patterns of everyday living of the sheep in the actual context of where they live. While this is not often directly addressed in the biblical narratives, it is always implied. The good shepherd causes the flock to flourish by wisely acting with both the need of the sheep and the resources and challenges of their pasture lands in mind. When Peter in 1 Peter 5:1-2 refers to the leaders of the church as under-shepherds, and admonishes them to “shepherd the flock of God,” certainly the use of such a metaphor implies leadership oriented to the needs of the flock, not the preferences of the shepherd.
Obviously the shepherd does not abandon the knowledge which they have of land and dangers. But the shepherd also does not act on personal agitation and push the flock from one pasture to another when adequate grass remains where the flock is pasturing. The good shepherd works to retain the natural calmness of a flock well fed and well protected and does not stir up the flock unnecessarily. For no matter the context of pasture and environment, the good shepherd considers first the flourishing of the flock and fulfills his task to bring that purpose to the most peaceable end for the flock.
Perhaps amid this season of familiar stories of grazing sheep and startled shepherds we might do well to consider what makes a good shepherd, and what the Good Shepherd most wants of those who shepherd the flock of God. Blessings to each and all in this season of tales old and familiar, but always new and mysterious!