Life, someone said, is what happens when we have made other plans. We never know when somebody will come knocking at the door needing our help, and we don’t know until we open if it’s a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger. We never know when our plans will be interrupted by the needs of others.

Jesus had sent the twelve out two by two, and now they were coming back, tired, I imagine, but also full of stories and questions. Perhaps the weight of responsibility felt a little heavier to them, now that they knew what it meant to be Jesus’ sent ones. He had called them away from their fishing boats, their families, and their plans, to follow him. And follow they did. They tried to keep up. They watched. They listened. They were astounded. They wondered. But then he sent them out, two by two, with the authority to teach and heal and drive out demons. He sent them out to participate in his mission, and they discovered how being bearers of the good news was quite different from just being hearers or observers. Now they gathered around Jesus, eager to tell him what they had done and taught. They wanted to share their joys and frustrations, to get feedback and encouragement, and perhaps a bite to eat. They were excited and exhausted at the same time, and Jesus knew just what they needed and what a joy it must have been for them to hear him say, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

They heard the promise of refreshing solitude. Some of them envisioned mountains, meadows, and trout streams, others could almost feel the sand between their toes as they imagined themselves strolling along a wide beach with waves rolling up on the shore, and another three or four saw themselves sitting on a deck overlooking hills covered with forests, with the setting sun painting the sky in purple, red, and orange hues.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” What a sweet commandment, and what a pleasure to keep it. So they climbed into the boat and sailed away. They pulled away from shore, away from the crowds, the needs and the demands.

Just to be out on the water was great. The town noise was quickly fading, and soon they heard nothing but the sound of the bow cutting through the water. It didn’t last, though. When they were pulling up on the other shore, they discovered that a crowd had already gathered there, people who had hurried there on foot from all the towns. They just couldn’t get away from it all. Perhaps the Twelve sensed how the loving care they felt for the people and their needs was slowly turning into resentment. Perhaps they were feeling guilty for not being more loving, more giving, who knows.

At this moment, Mark draws our attention away from the twelve and the ways in which we recognize ourselves in them, and he points to Jesus. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. Like sheep without a shepherd – what does that mean?

Andre Dubus remembers the first year he and his family lived in New England, in a very hold house in southern New Hampshire.

The landlord wanted someone to live in it while he was working out of state, the rent was a hundred dollars a month, the house was furnished, had seven fireplaces (two of them worked), and in the backyard was a swimming pool. There were seventy acres of land, most of it wooded except for a long meadow, hilly enough for sledding. There were also three dogs, eight sheep, and a bed of roses. … The landlady wanted the roses there when she came home after the year, and the landlord wanted the sheep. They were eight large ewes, and he bred them. They were enclosed by a wire fence in a large section of the meadow. … All we had to do about them was make sure they didn’t get through the fence, which finally meant that when they got through, we had to catch them and put them back in the pasture.

That sounds doable, doesn’t it? Dubus writes,

The sheep did not want to leave their pasture, at least not for long and not to go very far. One would find a hole in the fence, slip out, then circle the pasture, trying to get back in. The others watched her. Someone in our family would shout the alarm, and we’d all go outside to chase her.

At first we tried herding the ewe back toward the hole in the fence, standing in the path of this bolting creature, trying to angle her back, as we closed the circle the six of us made, closed it tighter and tighter until she was backed against the fence, and the hole she was trying to find. But she never went back through the hole, never saw it, and all our talking and pointing did no good. Finally we gave up, simply chased her over the lawn, around the swimming pool, under trees and through underbrush until one of us got close enough, dived, and tackled. Then three of us would lift her and drop her over the fence, and we’d get some wire and repair the hole.

Upon arriving in New Hampshire, Dubus had about as much experience with sheep as probably most of us have had.

When I was a boy, sheep had certain meanings: in the Western movies, sheep herders interfered with the hero’s cattle; or the villain’s ideas about his grazing rights interfered with the hero’s struggle to raise his sheep. And Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep. But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.[1]

Dubus and his family weren’t shepherds, though; they were sheep tacklers at best. James Rebanks was born into a shepherd family with father, grandfather, and generations of shepherds who have tended sheep in England’s Lake District as far back as the Middle Ages, and he is the rare shepherd who wrote a book about the trials and the beauty of the shepherd’s life.[2]

Once he saw an ad by the National Trust for a shepherd for one of its farms in Wales, and he imagined it catching the eye of bored city-dwellers everywhere in the UK, with their dreams of abandoning the “rat race” to live a different life closer to nature. The romantic voice in his head said: great! Some poor lost soul can escape urban drudgery to become a shepherd. But having written the book about the shepherd’s life he also felt he might be guilty of fuelling such escape fantasies. So he wrote a brief article for the Telegraph to shed some light on the attributes any applicant would need:

You need to be tough as old boots. Imagine working for weeks on end in the rain, and then snow, and lambs dying of hypothermia, with the difference between life and death being you and your knowledge. Even if you do your best they still die, and you will need to keep going. The romance wears off after a few weeks, believe me, and you will be left standing cold and lonely on a mountain. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on. …

You will need a couple, or more, great sheepdogs (Training a sheepdog takes a couple of years, so hopefully you started a while ago, or you’ll have to spend thousands to buy them ready-trained). A shepherd without great dogs is just a fool running around a mountain waving their hands achieving nothing.

You’ll need the patience of a saint, too, because sheep test you to the limit, with a million innovative ways to escape, ail or die. For all these reasons this probably isn’t a job for someone unfamiliar with the mountain, its sheep, and its people. The apprenticeship period for a shepherd is … about 40 years. You are just a “boy” or a “lass” until you are about 60: it takes that long to really know a mountain, the vagaries of its weather and grazing, to know the different sheep, marks, shepherds, bloodlines, and to earn the respect of other shepherds. This isn’t just fell walking behind sheep with a dog friend – it requires a body of knowledge and skills that shepherds devote decades to learning.

So by all means apply for this job if you are looking to escape your urban woes. But recognise that doing so without the right experience and skills is a bit like turning up at Nasa and telling them you’d like to be an astronaut. [3]

In the Bible, shepherding is a metaphor for ruling and leading.

Good kings are good shepherds who establish justice and righteousness so life in the community can flourish.

Bad shepherds? They feed themselves, not the sheep. They don’t strengthen the weak, they don’t heal the sick, they don’t bind up the injured, they don’t bring back the strayed, they don’t seek the lost. They rule with force and harshness. They scatter the sheep.[4]

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus didn’t let the needs of the people on shore interrupt his retreat plans, as much as it may look like that at first glance. He let his compassion, the very essence of who he is, who God is, he let his compassion interrupt all the ways in which we diminish and destroy the gift of life. He let his compassion interrupt our self-centeredness, our need to control, our harshness, our desire to be gods rather than creatures of God.

Mark says, he began to teach them many things – not just the folk on the shore, but also the twelve apprentices in the boat. He began to teach them not how to be good sheep regardless of who claimed to be shepherd – no, he began to teach them and all of us how to be shepherds, how to let his life, the life of the good shepherd, be ours.

The apprenticeship period for a shepherd, according to Rebanks, is about 40 years. That sounds about right for our life as disciples and emissaries of Jesus as well; it’s a lifelong project. Walking with him we become for each other what he is to us.


[1] Andre Dubus, “Out like a lamb,” in: Broken Vessels: Essays by Andre Dubus (1991)

[2] James Rebanks, The Shepherds Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015)

[3] James Rebanks

[4] See Ezekiel 34:2-6

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