Good Shepherd Sunday

References to the Lord as shepherd are abundant.  Today I’m writing about a book by a non-Catholic Christian: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Philip Keller. Some people tell me they only read books by Catholic authors and I understand their reason for doing so.  There are a few non-Catholic Christian authors who have much to offer all Christians, or at least some of their books do,  and I filter out any sections that are contrary to Catholic teaching.

A Shepherd Looks at the Psalm 23 could perhaps be called a “recent classic,” still in print forty years after its initial printing.  In the introduction, the author states that he grew up in East Africa (now Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) among “simple native herders whose customs closely resembled those of their counterparts in the Middle East.”  For eight years, Keller worked as a sheep owner and sheep rancher and later, as a lay pastor, shared his insights into psalm 23.

It is not by co-incidence that God calls us sheep.  Keller lists the characteristics of sheep that are so like those of people: mass mind (or mob instincts), fears and timidity, stubborness and stupidity.   He describes how the sheep owner “puts his mark” on his sheep by using a knife to cut an identifying mark on the ear.  That sounds very much like the seal of baptism and Holy Orders, a non-reversible permanent mark that sets a person apart. 

Throughout the book, Keller describes the hard and constant work involved in being a shepherd.

He says  sheep won’t “lie down in green pastures” until they are free from fear in general, free of hunger, of pesty flies and parasites, and free from friction with others of their own kind.  Keller describes the vigilance of the shepherd to keep the flock from predators, the hard work of clearing rough land to provide pasturage, and the diligent care of applying insect repellent.

In regard to tension among the sheep, here is a selected excerpt from this chapter:

… (the shepherd must deliver his sheep from) tension, rivalry, and cruel competition within the flock itself.  In every animal society there is an established an order of dominance or status within the group. In  a penful of chickens it is referred to as the “pecking order.”  With cattle, it is called the “horning order.” Among sheep we speak of the “butting order.”  

Two caveats come to mind. One, Keller is not speaking of a hierarchical organization with legitimate authority. Two, earlier in the book he mentions groups of ewes and it is in that context that he mentions an old ewe. But those wanting to be boss come in both genders and all ages. It is in that larger context that the excerpt is continued:

Generally an arrogant, cunning and domineering old ewe will be boss of any group of sheep (who)  maintains … position of prestige by butting and driving other ewes or lambs away from … favorite grounds….Because of this rivalr, tension, and competition for status and self assertion, there is friction in a flock. … Always they must stand up and defend their rights and contest the challenge of the intruder. … (In any human group), the struggle for self-assertionand self-recognition go on. Most of us fight to be “top sheep.”  We butt and quarrel and compete to “get ahead.”  And in the process people are hurt.

I was delighted, after my recent post,  to see another reference to a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  Some topics just keep reoccurring 🙂 

Walking through a valley has also been easier after reading Keller’s description of herding sheep to high country. He says that often the easiest way to go higher is through a valley.  That’s been a huge consolation in the valleys of my own life. A related thought is the rotation of pastures so that the sheep will not eat down to the roots of the grass, thereby destroying the pasturage. I think of that whenever my life takes a major turn. 

Then there are the flies. Anyone who has been in the Adirondacks during May and June can tell you how irritating black flies.  Add in deer flies, gnats, and mosquitoes and there is frantic movement trying to avoid these pests. The only antidote is to cover with oil: linseed or olive oil mixed with sulphur, tar, and/or spices.  “You anoint my head with oil” is a very accurate description. For Catholics, anointed with oil is associated with baptism, ordination, and anointing of the sick.

Phillip Keller’s book has many examples of which I’ve only mentioned a few.  He certainly has deepend my understanding of the Lord as the Good Shepherd.

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