What Does it Take to Be a Shepherd?

Years ago while living in California I had a number of experiences with sheep. We lived at the base of a place called Little Mountain in San Bernardino and there was a shepherd who annually grazed his flock of about 200 sheep on its hillsides. (Bit of Trivia: Little Mountain is the site where Sammy Davis Jr. lost an eye in a car accident.) We would see them for a couple of months a year as he moved them around the mountain. Periodically, they would wander down off the mountain and into our neighborhood, crossing streets and lawns and meandering into the park across the street. It was idyllic and different and something to talk about at dinner. I often wondered, “What does it take to be a shepherd?”

A few more years passed and God called me to be a shepherd of His flock. Since then, I have been in a life-long apprenticeship trying to answer and live up to that challenge. Recently, I found a book based on another man’s lifelong study of shepherds. It is fascinating.

“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks:
Forty Daily Reflections on Biblical Leadership”

The author, Dr. Timothy S. Laniak, writes out of hundreds of hours spent living with Bedouin shepherds. Months and months of interviews and participation with them has allowed him to gain convicting insights to the imagery of the Bible’s ubiquitous shepherding metaphors. Dr. Laniak asked a Jordanian Bedouin the same question I asked years ago in California, “What does it take to be a shepherd?” His name was Abu-Jamal.

“Sitting together in his tent, he contemplated before answering. What really matters is that you have the heart for it. If you do, you can begin tomorrow.” . . . A moment later Abu-Jamal indulged in some personal grief and then . . . a compliment. My thirteen-year-old son Jesse had started this conversation with us, politely sipped some of the coffee, and studied the Kalashnikov rifle hanging in the tent. But by now he was out playing with the flocks. Abu-Jamal spoke as one father to another. My sons don’t have the heart for this work so they don’t deserve the business. I’ll sell the flocks to someone else before I let my sheep go to those who don’t care for them.”

Then he looked me in the eye again and said, “Your son has the heart for the animals. I can see it. You tell him that he can come stay with me. I’ll give him two hundred sheep, a wife, and a good Jordanian education in any school he wants.”

The image of Jesse as a Jordanian shepherd was amusing, but Abu-Jamal didn’t seem to be joking. You ask Jesse to think about it and give me an answer tomorrow.” . . .

I’ll never know how serious my Bedouin friend’s offer was, but I’ll always remember how he valued a shepherd’s heart.

Abu-Jamal’s comments remind me of the proverb, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” (Proverbs 12:10) The Bedouin’s perspective began to illuminate other Scriptures for me as well.

After centuries of leadership failure in the Old Testament period, God promised Israel through Jeremiah that he would give them “shepherds after my own heart.” (Jeremiah 3:15) God watched the community’s leaders and, like my Bedouin host, decided that they did not deserve the “family business” because they didn’t have the Owner’s heart. God’s anger surfaced again in Zechariah’s preaching because “their own shepherds take no compassion on them.” (Zechariah 11:15)

In Ezekiel divine condemnation for the leaders is piercing, while compassion for the flock is transparent.

Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. (Ezekiel 34:2-4, NIV)

The shepherd imagery is ALL OVER THE NEW TESTAMENT as well. In fact, why don’t you take a month and give special attention to that imagery in the New Testament. Look for it. Meditate on it. Grow deeper with it. And let us keep the heart of a shepherd in mind as we plant our churches. The sheep need a shepherd who cares for them more than our plans and ambitions. They need shepherds with compassion for the flock of God and who will give themselves for their benefit.

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