By Christina Capecchi
I had relegated shepherds to the unicorn file, somewhere near the hunch-backed blacksmith and the whistling milk man. They were the stuff of Mother Goose lore. So it was surprising to discover actual shepherds when I visited the Holy Land.
I was riveted by the sloping landscape of Jesus’ ministry. Two tones checkered our vistas: crusty white limestone and fluttering blue-green olive trees. And there, among the jagged hills, was a man tending sheep. He was dressed in brown and his head was covered. He appeared hot and lonely.
I asked our guide Wisam, a Catholic Palestinian, about that line of work. It looked undesirable. But Wisam said shepherds cherish their lifestyle and their work, which is often passed on for generations. The meager wages don’t deter them.
Wisam then shared a fascinating element of shepherding. If a sheep persistently wanders, he said, “a good shepherd” will break its leg and carry it until it heals. That physical closeness creates a strong, lasting bond, and the sheep may go on to be a leader among the flock.
What a powerful insight for us wandering humans, whose self-sufficiency so easily leads us astray. We bemoan the times we are broken, but if they send us onto our knees and into the shepherd’s arms, we can consider them an abiding blessing.
We live in a culture that produces lost sheep — Heidi Montags, Levi Johnstons, Lindsay Lohans. It confuses attention with respect, wealth with success, and pleasure with contentment. The ravenous reality-TV circuit spotlights the weird and the weepy, the loony and the loopy, seeking characters, not character, making “good TV” out of bad people.
Their 15 minutes come at a great personal cost: severed engagements and marriages, ruptured friendships and families. They clamor for the camera and play the game, and, in doing so, lose faith — in self, in neighbor and in God.
This month St. Luke reminds us that our good shepherd would leave 99 sheep to seek out one missing and rejoice when it is found.
The same Gospel reading chronicles the prodigal son’s return. For years when I heard this passage from the pulpit I identified with the faithful older son. I was the girl showing up every day, sitting in the front row, raising my hand. What a raw deal the older son got!
Then one day in my late teens or early 20s, a light bulb flashed: What if I was the younger prodigal daughter? Suddenly I was recalling the times I’d received undue credit. It was a jarring paradigm shift, a revelation that redrew all the lines of my comfortable theology.
Of course each of us needs the unfailing devotion of a good shepherd — to be singled out, chased after and cared for.
When I look back on the year, I think of the people who have been broken and carried. The widow who has continued her husband’s nightly prayer ritual with their three young children. The dad trying to hold on to his house, who is still quick to tickle and tease his kids. The mom who lost her job the same month she rushed her asthmatic toddler to the ER. The latest post on her blog is a request for others’ prayer petitions, an offer to return the good graces that had been shown her.
Their pain produced a stronger bond with the good shepherd, and now the rest of us are drawing closer too.