Of Shepherds, Love, and other things

Herders and Shepherds

My nephew is a high country sheep farmer and has recently taken over the family business from his father. In the high country of the South Island of New Zealand, a land where sheep outnumber people by 20 to 1, my nephew Hamish runs around 12000 sheep over 60,000 acres. This is Lord of the Rings country. Not the idyllic landscapes of the Shire. This is the harsh and majestic landscape on the way to Mordor. The holdings are so large because the high country land is poor, suitable only for the Marino breed of sheep farmed not for their meat, but the fineness of their wool. Farms of this size are known as Stations or High Country Runs.

One day, during a visit some years ago, while travelling around the rugged hills with Murray, Hamish’s father, we suddenly stopped and Murray leapt out of the cab of the truck and bounded down a steep-sided gully to where a ewe had been caught by its dense wool in a thorn tree, known locally as a lawyer bush because the saying goes, once caught you’ll never get free. He cut the sheep free and hoisted it in
one smooth movement onto his shoulders and then arranged the ewe around his neck and proceeded to climb back to the truck. He then deposited the sheep on the bed of the truck, climbed in, and we drove off.

Now to say I was impressed by his agility and strength is something of an understatement. In that moment, he resembled the poster add for Speights, a local beer which advertised itself as the drink of the Southern Man, take a look  a kind of N.Z. equivalent of the Malboro Man. 

The Old Testament image of the shepherd leading his sheep over the rocky hillsides is not an image that translates to modern N.Z. shepherding, where the term herder is used more commonly than shepherd. The herder stands to the side and through piercingly high whistles, produced through a tightening of the lips or by use of a flat plastic device held between the lips, he directs the sheep-dogs in their task of rounding up the sheep and driving them to where the herder is directing.

In N.Z. because sheep are driven not led, there is normally little simgresense of the intimacy between shepherd and sheep conveyed by Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd. Yet, in the moment when my brother-in-law bounded off to retrieve his solitary ewe, all the power of the Biblical image of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of the one lost sheep communicated itself to me with a powerful and intense immediacy. I witnessed in that moment my brother-in-law’s concern for his ewe, a concern that went far beyond the animal’s economic value for him.

 As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded by John. Cited by B.W. Johnson in his commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891)



Jesus refers earlier in John 10 to the sheep knowing his voice and being able to distinguish his voice from the voices of the imposter. This communicates the intimacy of the connection between shepherd and sheep that Jesus clearly has in mind. It’s the inherent quality of recognition that makes the image of the good shepherd stand out among the many powerfully evocative images that Jesus takes from everyday 1st-century life.

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

It’s easy to miss the potency of connection in these two sentences. If I am not careful I find myself mishearing these lines as:

I am like the good shepherd. I know about my own and my own know about me, just as the Father knows about me and I know about the Father.

There is a world of difference between knowing and knowing-about. Jesus’ image of the good shepherd is an image that reflects the intensity of his experience of knowing, and being known by, God.  I am drawn by my desire to know and be known-by. But there is something more comfortable and less demanding; a good deal more self-protective in knowing-about and being-known-about.

Herein, lies another example of the ambivalence of my all too human heart. That which I long for most is the very thing I need also to distance myself from. It’s one thing to be moved by the poetic intensity of the Jesus’ image of the good shepherd and quite another to open to the costly experience of knowing and being known-by. In the intimacy of knowing and being known-by there is no place to hide.

George Herbert captures the essence of the struggle in Love bade me Welcome   and you might like to listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams musical setting of this powerful poem in his series of Five Mystical Songs.

To love is a risky business. To allow ourselves to be loved, now that is the trick!

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