The image of the good shepherd comes up in several passages of scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments.
The image of the good shepherd comes up in several passages of scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments. As most of us today are city dwellers this image seems quaint and distant from our daily experience. Still, it is a very powerful and intimately beautiful image, and we just need to unpack it a bit.
As this scripture passage indicates, there are two kinds of shepherds. One watches over and knows his flock. Each sheep is known by name and by personality. This Shepherd sees his flock not just as a matter of livelihood, but because he knows each of his sheep he also has an abiding affection for them. His care for them, then, is not merely an economic practicality, but they are like family to him. He will risk danger, even the threat of death, to protect them and keep them healthy. The second kind of shepherd is the ʺhired hand.ʺ This is someone who has no concern for the flock except as a means to an end, a paycheck. His interest in the flock is conditional. It depends on how well he is paid and, if any danger threatens the flock, he would look out for ʺnumber oneʺ before he would rescue a mere ʺsheep.ʺ
Jesus tells us, ʺA good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.ʺ
We know who Jesus is talking to when he says this. He is talking both to the Pharisees and to us. The Pharisees understand that Jesus is comparing them to the hired hand who thinks of himself first when danger comes, who leaves the flock to be scattered and caught by the dangers of the world, and their response is anger and revenge. But Jesus is talking to us here too. We know that he is telling us that if we believe in him, if we enter the sheepfold through him, the one, true ʺsheep gate,ʺ he will love us and protect us, even with his life. We know that that is exactly what he did. But is not also challenging us both recognize and accept his as our Shepherd? And is he not challenging us to become ʺgood shepherdsʺ with our own lives for each other? When one of our own is troubled, or is threatened by some kind of injustice, shouldn’t we be willing to risk everything to protect them, to help them?
There is more though too. He is also telling us that he has ʺother sheep, sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.ʺ As we have seen in the Acts of the Apostles, there were some among the Jewish Christians who were troubled by all of the Gentiles that were coming over to Christ, the ʺother sheep, not of ‘this’ flock.ʺ (Acts 11: 19-26). We are to be like Jesus for all those who ʺdo not belong to this foldʺ to let them hear his voice in and through us. He wants us all to be of one fold, with him as our one shepherd. We would be nothing more in our faith but hired hands if we denied access to the fold because they are not ‘one of us.’ If we presume our own value to be greater than that of any other human being made by God, why would we risk our livelihood, or our lives for them? If we think this way, we are Pharisees, mere hired hands.
Jesus wants us to see what a good shepherd looks like and acts like. Why? Because that is what he wants us to be, in his name, here and now. ʺThere is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for a friend.ʺ (John 15: 13) Who are our friends? If Jesus is the model, the answer must be that all are our friends. He came into the world to shepherd us all into one flock. He calls us to do the same with our lives. Let us all pray that we can come to see ourselves as one flock with Jesus as our one shepherd. Let us love one another as he has loved us. Thanks be to God.