Lazarus: It happened a couple of weeks before you came. The shepherds of Tekoa told it to the shepherds in Bethlehem who told it to ours. I think in a few days, the story must have been repeated several times all over Jerusalem until it reached the mountains of Ephraim. By this time, the shepherds of Galilee must have heard about it….
That night Martha did not have to light any of the lamps. It was a bright moonlit night and the inn’s patio shone like it was daytime. Yonder, the small houses of Bethany looked like they had a new whitewash…. Lazarus took a handful of dates as he started to tell us the story….
Lazarus: His name was David, like the other shepherd who later became our king. He lived nearby, in Tekoa, the village by the south. It was here they say that the famous prophet Amos, who had a lot to say, was born. But this David was neither king nor prophet. He was only a shepherd, tending a herd of 40 sheep….
David: Go! Go!… It’s getting dark, little rascals! It’s time to go home!…. Goooooooo! Let no one be left behind…. Straight ahead!… Goooo!…
Everyday, at dusk, the shepherd did his thing: bring back the sheep to the fold. It was not an easy thing, mind you. They say that every path has its puddle…. That’s why, every time it got dark, and the sheep had to cross the great ravine, David would strike the stones with his staff…. The little animals, already familiar with the sound, passed quietly: they knew their shepherd was just ahead of them, leading them on the right path.
David: Little Glow… Painted One… Little Star… Blackwool … Dopey… Little Ear!… Ah, everyone is here. I left forty sheep, and with forty I’m coming back!
Upon reaching the fold, David stood near the gate counting his sheep. He gave each one a name which he never mixed up with anyone else…. This David knew his flock like he was their mother… And so did the sheep: they knew him from seven miles away. Well, it happened that in the same fold, two other shepherds kept their flocks….
Cyrus: How was your day, David? Were you lucky?
David: Indeed I was, Cyrus. I passed by the eagle’s ravine, and boy, my rascals had a banquet. You should see their bulging bellies. They’ll sleep better than you and I, but they deserve it…. Think of the things they give us: milk, cheese, wool… It’s only fair that we work for them too, going up and down the hills. That’s how we’re at peace with them. My little rascals were like children feasting on candy in that vast green valley…. You should’ve seen them…
Nato: No, I’d rather not. These animals are better off than we are…. You say “it’s fair, it’s fair.” Tell me, is it fair that they come fully stuffed while we have nothing but a few pieces of dates and a small slice of cheese… I didn’t think that the job of a shepherd was this bad, damn!
Cyrus: Who told you to start this, Nato?
Nato: No one, but I have no choice. I couldn’t find anything better. Let me tell you this: I swear by this mole on your bald head, Cyrus, that as soon as I can, it will be “goodbye to you forever!” I’m sick and tired of going up and down the hill, and having to milk the animals.
Cyrus: And everything for four cents! I, too, am tired of all this! To hell with all these sheep!
Nato: To hell with the master too!
David: The sheep are not yours, that’s why you talk that way. If they were your own, you’d feel affection for them….
Cyrus and Nato were shepherds who were hired for a fee. The flocks they tended belonged to two big businessmen of Te¬¬koa. Since they did not own the sheep and the work of a shepherd was heavy, these two did not work very hard: one did his job reluctantly, while the other, maliciously. It was the opposite with David. Those 40 sheep were his treasure and he loved them…
David: Hey, friends, keep right on cursing the animals, while you eat their cheese. As for me, I’m gonna sleep… for I have to be up at dawn. I want to bring my little rascals to Beth¬lehem… where the pastures are supposed to be the best….
Nato: And the snakes are on the look-out…
David: Well, I always have my stick ready, besides my eyes are always open, so I don’t think there’s any snake that can outwit me…. So, may you dream of the Messiah’s banquet, for your happiness!
The sun had not yet risen, but David was already on his toes, while his friends had not awaken from their sleep. Every morning, he would get up early, fill his sack with bread and cheese and his canteen with wine. Then he would tie his stick to his back and slip his sling into his pocket. Holding his staff well, he would set out to work!
David: Gooooo! Goooooo! Today you’ll have good pasture and plenty of water for everyone!…. Daisy, don’t go astray! Whitey! Gooooo!
One night, the howling of the wolves was heard in the village of Tekoa. All the sheep were scared because they smelled danger….
A Shepherd: Damn!…. They have sharp fangs like swords and eyes burning like ember…!
David: How many….?
Shepherd: Ten. They killed ten.
Another Shepherd: What could I do?… I ran up the mountain, and the sheep that could escape followed me…. Since they were so stupid, they didn’t know where to go…
David: How many….?
Shepherd: I’ve no idea…! About fourteen. Some were badly injured, some were bleeding, their bodies pierced with holes… I had to finish them off with blows, since there was no choice….
Another Shepherd: It was almost night…. Suddenly they came and attacked the flock and…
David: How many…?
Shepherd: I didn’t count them. They were many!….
At night, the wolves howled on top of the mountains. Then they descended into the village and began the carnage… killing several sheep. The shepherds of Tekoa were very alarmed. David, more than anyone else.
David: We’ve got to do something, guys, don’t you think so?
Cyrus: No way. Don’t you know its the wolves who are the masters…? They come from the same hell!… You can’t beat them.
David: Baloney! If we get the leader, the rest would lose heart and go away and stop killing our sheep…. The trouble is, we, ourselves, are a bunch of cowards…
Nato: Cowards?…. Well, yes. So what? Look, I’m not risking my neck for these animals. You do it if you like, since you love them so much. As a matter of fact, you’re beginning to look like them…
That night, David did not sleep on the straw mattress in his usual place. He stayed outside, leaning on one of the beams of the fold. The young man smelled something…
David: Let them come, let them come… They’ll learn who I am….
After the first night watch, the wolves ceased to howl….
David: Well, well, their voice must have grown hoarse with so much howling….
After a while, David closed his eyes… It was a matter of seconds… Two huge, black wolves leaped over the wall of the fold and struck like lightning at the sheep…
Cyrus: The wolf!… The wolf…! Run…!
David: Stay here, dammit, and let’s face it. With the three of us, we can do it!
Nato: You do it, you fool!… I’m getting out of here!
David’s two companions started to run across the field, leaving him alone with the wolves and all the sheep milling around terrified, not knowing where to go, trying to flee from the attack of the beasts…. But they couldn’t. Suddenly, some of them fell bleeding, their bodies ripped open. David could wait no longer…. From his bag, he took out a sharp knife, gripped it firmly with his hand, and when one of the wolves leaped over one of the sheep, he lunged at the wolf and planted the knife deep into his heart. The animal turned around and fell dead at his feet.
David: Damned beast, you have finally paid for your deeds!
The other wolf, smelling the blood of his companion, left the sheep, eyes burning with rage, to attack David… The two engaged in a deadly fight, rolling over and over on the ground…. The terrified sheep stayed close to the walls of the fold, running in confusion to all sides…
David: Easy, my little rascals…! Don’t be afraid…. this beast will not come out of here alive…
The second wolf roared as he planted his fangs into the shepherd’s arm. David, gasping, plunged the knife again and again into the back of the beast, who only became more enraged as he continued being wounded…. David, who was almost out of breath, succeeded in landing the knife right into the middle of the animal’s chest. The beast, foaming with rage, mustered all his remaining strength, and hurled himself at the young man’s neck, biting it desperately… It was indeed sad… The shepherd’s blood and the wolf’s mixed on the earth and saturated it…. so the fight finally ended….
Cyrus: What a daring guy he is, this David! Imagine him fighting these beasts!
Nato: And such huge animals they were! This guy really fought like a brave man….
Cyrus: Tell me, Nato. Who would ever think of fighting two wolves at the same time?
Nato: Two wolves plus the other two hundred wolves who leaped over the wall. This David had plenty of guts to fight them to save his flock. See how he left them stiff as death.
Cyrus: Yeah, but it cost him his life too… He’s a fool, that’s what he is…
Nato: Call him whatever you wish, but thanks to him, the sheep have been saved. Don’t forget that, Cyrus, the sheep have been saved, thanks to him….
Lazarus: The story spread from mouth to mouth, from shepherd to shepherd. And now, you know it too…. He’s a fool, all right, but a valiant one… He gave his life for his sheep, his little rascals, as he called them…. Don’t you think the life of this man is worth talking about?
Many years later, when Peter and Andrew, my brother James and the rest of us announced to our countrymen the good news of Jesus who gave his life for his people, we were reminded of this story of the good shepherd, as told to us by Lazarus in Bethany, when the great feast of the Passover was almost near.
Jesus’ theological discourse about the Good Shepherd, which is only found in the gospel of John, becomes a real event in this episode as narrated by Lazarus. Passing from one literary genre to another, the essence of the message is preserved in this evangelical text. There is a dividing line between human beings: those who are willing to work for life and generously offer their own when the time comes, and those who protect life zealously for themselves. Those who “lose” life in this way gain it, those who offer it become a fountain of life for others. All martyrs comply with this important mission of keeping hope alive.
In Israel, the small cattle owners were their own shepherds. If their flocks were composed of many animals, the owners hired other shepherds who were paid in cash and in the produce of the flock. The principal task of a shepherd is to look for pastures and drinking troughs for the animals and to protect them from hustlers and wild animals. The “tools” of the shepherd are the pole, the staff and the sling. The sling serves as a weapon against harmful animals and it is also used to gather the sheep into a specific place. In the Bible, the care shown by the shepherd for his flock is a symbol of God’s care for his people (Ps 23).
The sheep of Palestine have white tails, rich in grease. Their fleece is curly and yields a kind of wool that is best for garments. The shearing period is one of great rejoicing for the shepherds. The ewes do not have horns and the rams are most valued for food and religious sacrifices in the Temple. In general, these sheep yield white wool and the milk is excellent. Biblically speaking, the sheep is considered a kind and meek animal. In the gospel, the flock is a frequently used symbol to refer to the people, who are like “sheep without a shepherd,” and which serves as a criticism of the religious leaders of Israel, the unscrupulous priests who were unjust and materialistic. In criticizing the bad shepherds, Jesus situates himself within the line of the ancient prophetic messages (Ez 34:2-10; Jer 25:34-38).
The wolves of Palestine are lighter in color than those of the other Mediterranean countries. During the day, they hide in caves or in deserted areas and at night come down and attack the flocks. They are known as the terror of the shepherds. In the New Testament the false prophets are compared to wolves (Mt 7:15), and enemies of justice as well (Mt 10:16). In order to symbolize the peace of the Messianic times, the prophets use images where the wolf is no longer considered a menace (Is 11:6 and 65:25).
In the image of the good shepherd, Jesus gives us a picture of the “good leader,” who does not exploit his sheep, but rather serves them. He knows them and cares for them. The sheep are not a burden to him, but the meaning of his life. He has no hidden motives. His only concern is the life of his sheep, that they might have abundant pastures, and possibilities for growth.
In his discourse about the Good Shepherd, Jesus referred to him as the “gate” through which the sheep enter and leave. This image actually refers to the relationship between him and Christians. Jesus is the good shepherd, but to be a Christian is not to be a sheep in a flock without face or personality, where everyone bows the head, where no one voices out opinions, and everyone is submissive or insecure. This flock is a community of free men and women, responsible and free, and capable of loving one another, as they know they are loved by the Shepherd.