I don’t know much about sheep: My experience is limited but I am aware they smell, they’re not terribly bright, and when they’ve just been sheared you can’t help but feel embarrassed for them.
I don’t know much about shepherds, either: I’ve lived most of my life in the suburbs, with one six-year stretch in a major urban and very cosmopolitan setting (Vancouver, Canada). The fact that I’ve seen the movie Brokeback Mountain doesn’t provide much value-added information (those two cowboys were supposed to be shepherding a flock, after all, although let’s face it: that movie wasn’t about sheep).
All this is to say that what I do know about sheep and shepherds comes from the Bible, where both terms exist in the realm of metaphor. I do know some things about metaphors! And this is what the Gospel writer John offers us in this week’s lection:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” –John 10:11-18 NRSV
The first thing to note about the use of shepherd as a biblical metaphor is that in the Hebrew scriptures (what we Christians usually call the Old Testament), is that it has definite royal connections. We can thank King David for at least some of that, of course, but this royal metaphor was widespread in the ancient Near East, not just in Israel. Furthermore, to call God shepherd (as happens more than a few times) acknowledges God as ruler of one’s life. It is to God that we surrender our life and look to for guidance rather than self-will.
It’s no coincidence that this week’s lectionary scriptures include arguably the most familiar of all the psalms: The 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” Certainly the first hearers of Jesus would be familiar with this royal metaphor in regard to God. But what must have been jarring was Jesus’ declaration: I am the good shepherd.
Could there be any clearer connection between God (the Father) and Jesus (the Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God) than that? This is about as clear a theological statement of Christology as you’ll find anywhere in scripture, and it is most likely the chief take-away for this week’s lectionary study.
Yes, it’s possible to honor Jesus as teacher, prophet, rabbi, holy man, and whatever other human title you want to give him. But what John the Gospel writer–as well as the other three Gospel writers–offers us is the good news that connects Jesus and God directly and intimately.
*From the 2012 ForeWords archive