Shepherds: Heroes of the Old Testament

Father John A. Kiley
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In the front vestibule of St. Joseph Church in Pascoag there is a small stained glass window depicting a bishop in liturgical attire, staff in hand, attended by servers. Perhaps unique in stained glass artistry, his Excellency is wearing eye-glasses. The episcopal motto featured below his likeness reveals the historical accuracy of the bespeckled prelate’s unusual portrait.

The motto, Dominus Regit Me, belonged to Bishop William Hickey, third bishop of Providence, 1921-1933, who indeed wore glasses and who dedicated the present Pascoag church when an older building was destroyed by fire. His Latin motto reads, literally, The Lord Rules Me, but English speaking Christians know the motto’s Scriptural reference better under the more rustic translation, The Lord is My Shepherd. Why St. Jerome chose the regal image of the Lord “ruling” rather than the pastoral image of the Lord “shepherding” when he was translating the psalms from Hebrew/Greek into Latin is guesswork. A hymn by Henry Baker which was sung at the funeral of Diana, the Princess of Wales, happily blends the kingly and the pastoral elements of this psalm most pleasantly: “The king of love my shepherd is, Whose goodness fails me never; I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.” Still, Bishop Hickey’s autocratic reign was well served by St. Jerome’s more authoritarian terminology.

The 23rd psalm, which begins “The Lord is My Shepherd I shall not want” is certainly among the most noted lines in Scripture, ranking with the Our Father in familiarity. The psalm is a masterpiece of bucolic and festive imagery. The sheep fortunate enough to have such a good shepherd are led to “green pastures” and “still waters,” rural features which can be at a premium in the sometimes sandy and dry terrain of the Middle East. The good shepherd “refreshes” his sheep, always replenishing their energy, and, true to his name, always leads them along the “right paths.” Even in the countryside’s densest nooks and crannies, the sheep “fear no danger” since their shepherd is nearby with this trusty walking stick with which he can fight off small animals who might endanger the flock and with his dependable “staff” with which he can pull back the lamb that wanders too close to a precipice.

Continuing the theme of shelter and security but switching metaphors, the psalmist envisions an enjoyable “banquet” arranged al fresco to the delight of the guests but to the confusion of enemies who wonder at the courage needed to enjoy a meal in the open air during battle. Soothing ointment is provided for the guests who must always be cautious of the brilliant Mediterranean sun. An overflowing cup of wine ably symbolizes the abundance of the benefactor’s largesse.

The solicitude of the shepherd for his sheep and the generosity of the host for his guests is neatly transferred to the spiritual realm where God himself is both good shepherd and kindly host. God’s “goodness and kindness,” two words that always summarize God’s abundant blessings in the Hebrew mind, will be ever available to the faithful soul on this earth and will guide the believer assuredly and eventually to ultimate happiness: “Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”

Many heroes of the Old Testament were shepherds. Abel was a shepherd who made a worthy gift to his Lord. Moses played the shepherd while on the run from danger in Egypt. King David was a shepherd boy raised to kingly rank by the prophet Samuel. The Messiah was predicted by Micah to be a ruler who would “shepherd” the people of Israel. In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus compares his own ministry to that of a solicitous and attentive “good shepherd.”

Elsewhere Christ was anxious for the crowds because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” On the last day the “shepherd” will separate the sheep from the goats. St. Peter saw Jesus as the “shepherd and guardian” of souls. The Church continues this line of thinking by referring to a parish priest as “pastor,” which is the actual Latin word for shepherd. The rich meal that concludes the 23rd psalm connotes certainly the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist as well as the eternal banquet feast of heaven. The goodness and kindness of God is indeed present both here and happily hereafter for God’s fortunate sheep.