The gospel today is the parable of the Good Shepherd who, having lost one sheep, leaves the ninety nine and goes to find the lost sheep, and brings him home on his shoulders.

The traditional image is of the gentle good shepherd, with perhaps a tear in his eye, giving the poor lost lamb a lovely cozy cuddle as they wander home together.

However, another more shocking image is given by those who have studied the working methods of first century Palestinian shepherds. They say that the shepherd would correct a wandering lamb by breaking it’s leg. That way it wouldn’t wander off again–indeed, couldn’t wander off again. The shepherd did this not only to discipline the lamb, but to protect him, since to wander off would make him vulnerable to the wolves.

This may be shocking to those who cherish the image of the gentle good shepherd have a sweet little canoodle with the cuddly little lamb, but I have learned since first hearing this theory, that it is not true that the shepherd intentionally breaks the lamb’s leg. It’s one of those “preaching points” that found its way into the tradition. Nevertheless, the story reminds us that the sentimental perception of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” is not the full picture.

The full picture of Jesus includes a severe and stern Christ as well, and the tradition of the Catholic Church in her iconography and theology has always included the aspect of Christ as the Judge at that dreadful las day. That is to say, Aslan is not a tame lion. Jesus is our friend, but he is also the dread judge of all. His loving mercy is tender, but it is also sometimes severe.

He doesn’t “break our legs” deliberately, but perhaps he has allowed that dark spot in our lives, that sore point of suffering, that seemingly inexplicable non-answer to prayer, that difficult relationship, that perennial weakness, that seemingly absurd suffering as the ‘broken leg’ that keep us close to home and close to Him and safe from the wolves.