Shepherds occupy a prominent place throughout sacred Scriptures. In both the Old and the New Testaments, shepherds hold a special place in salvation history.
Recall that Abel was a shepherd and that his gift of a lamb to the Almighty was accepted. Cain, who was a farmer, offered his fruits and vegetables to the Father but his offerings were rejected. The tender of flocks was clearly acclaimed above the tiller of the soil.
In Eden, Adam and Eve before the birth of Cain and Abel enjoyed the relaxed life of the country side, freely picking fruits from the trees and benefiting from abundant harvests. After Eden, Adam and his son Cain had to earn their keep by the sweat of their brow, toiling in unproductive soil and reaping meager crops. Abel seems to have been spared these chores, accepting a more benign role among the sheep, ewes and lambs. Working the land became viewed as a curse. Idling while the flocks roamed the countryside looked like a blessing. Perhaps it was a question of the grass being greener in the pasture than in the field.
The exiled Moses is also cast in the role of a shepherd. It was while he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks faraway from the hustle and bustle of Egypt that the prophet becomes attracted by the burning bush. Moses meets God for the first time apart from the work-a-day world, apart from toil and labor, in a new idyllic Eden as it were.
Of course, the preeminent shepherd of the Hebrew Scriptures is the boy David, who would become the most illustrious king of Israel. In searching for a worthy successor to Saul, none of the mature sons of Jesse who are at home with their father minding the family business, is deemed to be suitable for the royal task. Instead, the adolescent David is called in from the countryside, from the meadows, from Bethlehem’s grottoes and glades, to assume the regal mantle. Like Abel, the inexperienced shepherd boy is preferred by God to his worldly-wise brothers. Like Moses, a marginalized youth is favored over more likely candidates.
On a similar but less lofty plane, it should be remembered that it was to shepherds out in the countryside, tending their sheep by night, that the heavenly choir first announced the good news of salvation that a Savior, who was Christ the Lord, had been born. The Sanhedrin, the scribes, the Pharisees, the rabbis, and the temple merchants received no invitation to gaze upon the spiritual splendor of the newborn King of the Jews. Only shepherds received the Lucan summons to enter the divine presence. What fitting symbolism!
The newborn Messiah is here to commence the restoration of a new Eden. Errant mankind is about to be released from the burden consequent to man’s first sin. An acceptable sacrifice, reminiscent of Abel, will once again be presented to and accepted by the Father. Shepherds had shared in God’s first generation through Abel. Shepherds had witnessed the release of the chosen people though Moses. Shepherds had participated in the formation of the monarchy through David. And now shepherds were instrumental in developing the foundation of Christianity through those awestruck flock guardians on the plains of Bethlehem.
The biblical image of the shepherd reaches its climax, of course, when Jesus Christ announces to his disciples and followers, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus is the authentic shepherd who will truly restore the lost Eden. Instead of thankless labor, redeemed man will be led to restful waters, be given repose in green pastures, and have his strength restored.
Even in difficult times, the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff will offer support to the faithful. A bountiful table will be set; soothing oils will offer comfort; each cup will overflow.
Once again, under the guidance of the Good Shepherd, mankind shall dwell in the house of the Lord.
Mankind will finally be at home again in Eden.