The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of characterizing its leaders as shepherds. The bishop’s or abbot’s crosier, despite any ornate decoration, really represents the shepherd’s crook. This characterization can also be seen in many liturgical prayers and some theological statements. But the metaphor originally referred to political leaders, specifically the kings. Archaeology has uncovered many ancient Near Eastern depictions of kings in shepherd garb, signifying the ruler’s responsibility of guidance and protection of the people of the realm. This understanding is behind the reading from Jeremiah.
The prophet uses a curse form to indict the monarchy, the king and all those who make up the ruling court. These leaders have not simply neglected the people of God, they have actually misled them and caused them to be scattered (probably a reference to the exile). They have been occupied with their own advantage rather than with the well-being of the people. Because the people are burdened with false shepherds, God will gather together the lost sheep and then appoint other shepherds to care for them. The reading ends with an oracle of salvation that promises a renewal of the royal house of David.
The Gospel says that Jesus had pity on the crowds, “for they were sheep without a shepherd.” Here the reference was probably to religious leaders, because at this time the Jews were an occupied people and the real political power was in the hands of the Romans. Still, just as the earlier Israelite kings, though primarily political leaders, also wielded religious power, so the religious leaders at the time of Jesus also enjoyed significant political influence. The fact that many of them had been co-opted by the Romans was a grave concern for many religious Jews.
At the times of both Jeremiah and Jesus, the people did not strictly separate political and religious leadership, as we do today. Nonetheless, despite the different systems in place, both political and religious leaders still have the responsibility of guiding and protecting the people for whom they are responsible. Ultimately, they exercise their authority as representatives of God, who declared, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep” (Ez 34:15); or of Jesus, who proclaimed, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:14).
There are so many people searching today, people hungering for instruction, good people who are looking for direction. They may be parents who are sick with grief over the future of a troubled child; a man stripped of his dignity by unemployment; a woman facing a pregnancy alone; elderly people who feel the diminishing surge of life in their bodies; people who are angry and confused because they have lost confidence in leaders, whether political or religious. They are people who are looking for answers and for meaning. They are like sheep without a shepherd. To whom should they turn?