The Bible Speaks of Two Kinds of Shepherds

by David Gray, July 19, 2015

Pieter Brueghel II, The Bad Shepherd, c. 1616, Private collection

The First Reading for Sunday’s Sacrifice of the Mass comes from Jeremiah 23:1-6, and concerns the consequences of kings and rulers not caring for the people of God.

    “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.

    I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

    Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David; as king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security. This is the name they give him: “The LORD our justice.””

This reading from Jeremiah presents a great opportunity to point out a distinction that needs to be made in sacred Scripture between the two types of shepherds.

The first type shepherd in Scripture is the one who God establishes/elevates, and who man tries to destroy. In fact, the very first time we hear about a shepherd in the Bible is with Abel, “a herder of flocks” (Gen. 4:2). Abel, not thinking of his self-interest, offered to God what was most valuable to him; the fatty portion of the firstlings of his flock. In contrast, his brother Cain offered to God, not the first fruits of his harvest, but, simply the “fruit of the ground.” Rather than rejoicing with his brother Abel for having found favor with God, and figuring how out to make a better offering next time, Cain chose to kill his younger brother. In this way, Abel as the first shepherd, represents a type of Christ, while Cain is a prefigurement of those who would kill the Christ.

Throughout Scripture, God seems to have a love affair with the lowly shepherd. Indeed, herding sheep seems to be an entry-level job in becoming someone who God can use to do many great things. From Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and his sons, to Moses to David to Amos, the story of the Bible is that if you’re going to be called to shepherd God’s people anywhere, you better first learn how to lead some sheep. God raises up the lowly (Cf. Ps. 138.6).

The second type of shepherd in Scripture is the one who man establishes/elevates and who tries to destroy the people of God. As in the reading above from Jeremiah, these shepherds are referring to kings and other human rulers who often fell short of God’s standards and were condemned for their stupidity and mismanagement (e.g. Jer. 10:21, 22:22, 23:1-4, 25:34-38; Ezek. 34:1-10, Zech. 10:3; 11:4-17).

The significant aberration in Scripture of bad Israelite and non-Israelite shepherd rulers comes with David, who more closely belongs to the first type, because he was chosen by God (1 Sam. 10), but is also a King. David spends his youth as a shepherd, but later rules God’s people with an “upright heart” and a “skillful hand”:

    “He chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfolds. From tending ewes God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage. He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them” (Psalm 78:70-72).

It is from this King David that God promises in the reading above to raise up a new shepherd – “a righteous shoot to David”. This reservation that God sets in the Davidic seed instantly establishes royal messianic expectations, which culminates in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man and Son of David.

“This is the name they give him: “The LORD our justice.” Just as we see in these days, those who we have elevated in government to shepherd us, and those who have been appointed to shepherd us, have done anything but. They have all fallen short of God’s standards. They are all stupid. They all mismanage their resources. They are all selfish like Cain, and do not offer to God what belongs to Him. We have learned and continue to be reminded that though the Gates of Hell will never prevail against it, the Church continues to have her share of shepherds of the second type. Our only hope for justice is our Lord and God Christ Jesus.

When my mind becomes absorbed with news of bad shepherds in our Church today, I’m always encouraged to read this prophecy from Pope Benedict XVI (then Joseph Ratzinger), written in his book Faith and the Future?

    “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . .

    But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

As you reflect upon the readings at Mass today, here are some questions for you to consider:

  1. Am I the lowly who God seeks to raise, or am the I high who He will bring down?
  2. Looking back on my life, what are some things that I can clearly see now that God used those to prepare me for how I am serving Him now.
  3. Do I do all I can to try to minimize the damage of bad shepherds and pray for them, or do I just complain about them and do nothing helpful?

“A psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul. He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.

You set a table before me in front of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for endless days.”

Scripture texts in this blog are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1 Comment

    • Michael S Clifford
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    • July 22, 2015

    David's Psalm is really Psalm 22. The Protestants broke Psalm 10 in half, and put the second half of Psalm 146 with Psalm 147. The Douay-Rheims Version and the Catholic Public Domain Version are the only two uncorrupted English translations that I know of. Of those two, only the Douay-Rheims Version has an imprimatur.

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