There are plenty of biblical shepherds, and while those in the gospel stories of Jesus’ Nativity are acknowledged good guys, they may actually be in the minority.
Often the “shepherds” of Israel are kings and rulers, and, more often than not, when we encounter them in the pages of Scripture, they are failing in their duty or actively abusing their “sheep.” Zechariah tells us that, in good prophetic fashion, he acted this out literally: he was called by God to take on a shepherd’s job as a sort of lived parable, to show his contemporaries through symbolic action what God had in store for the false shepherds. Shepherds seem to have provided such obvious imagery because they are so powerful, relative to the sheep, but their role in life depended on the sheep, too. The careless or wicked shepherd is not merely a villain out of central casting but someone who has missed the opportunity to find his or her real calling.
The shepherds at the Nativity bring this image with them to the manger, but they seem themselves to be poor, marginalised people. The true shepherd is the even more powerless one to whom the angels lead them. He has come to be with them, and with us: a true shepherd whose rule and leadership consist of sharing the plight of the sheep. Our response is likely to have both “shepherd” and “sheep” aspects. We all exercise power of one kind or another, in family, community, workplace, church. We are all accountable for our actions and for the welfare of those whose vulnerability is somehow in our hands. Getting this right entails understanding the other side—our own vulnerability and our own need to understand whom we follow and obey.
Where in your own life can or must you exercise power? Where are you the one led or cared for?
Where do you see power misused? What light does the gospel shed on that misuse?
Lord, you are my shepherd; may I lead those entrusted to my care, remembering your own care for them and for me. Amen.