Christ the Lord tells us that he is the Good Shepherd.
What does this mean?
For many, the image of Christ the Shepherd evokes the image of green rolling pastures and a quiet bucolic countryside, free of care and worries. Christ is the Lord of a Christianized version of the Elysium fields, the master of a retreat and respite from the troubles of life, the gentle presider over a safe space of comfort and security. Such musings are coupled with an understanding of the Lord Jesus that is entirely meek and mild, very much like the lambs over which he watches.
However attractive this image of Christ the Shepherd is to us, it fails to capture the biblical imagery, which the Lord Jesus calls forth in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John.
The image of a shepherd is, biblically speaking, coded language; it’s a metaphor, not simply for the gentle presider of a carefree respite from the troubles of life, but for the leadership of the Israelites—the priests, prophets, and especially the kings—who had a divine mandate to lead the Israelites along the paths of fidelity to God and righteousness in their daily lives. The ideal of the Good Shepherd was often contrasted with the reality of bad shepherds; the priests, prophets, and kings of the Israelites repeatedly missed the mark, endangering the flock and leading the people into dark and dangerous situations.
Thus, then, we hear in the testimony of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (Chapter 3) that Lord will act to give Israel good shepherds, but more than this, that he will become the Good Shepherd. No longer will the Israelites languish under thrall of wicked or incompetent kings, false prophets, and double-dealing priests, but God will come himself and lead his people as priest, prophet, and king. The Lord will be their shepherd and they the people “shall not want.”
Christ testifies in his Gospel that this vision of the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled in his very person; he is God the Good Shepherd. Remember who the Lord Jesus is: he is God, who accepts a human nature and lives a real human life and who reveals himself as fulfillment of the hopes of the prophets, one of those greatest hopes being that the Lord would be for his people their leader, their protector, their guide, their king.
Jeremiah and other Old Testament references to the Lord becoming a shepherd to his people are not directly cited in John, but they are the texts behind the text. The passage is unintelligible without Old Testament reference points. Indeed, trying to understand it without reference points in the Old Testament is why the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is often overtaken by flights of fancy about an otherworldly safety zone, rather than being a densely textured revelation about how God promises to act in this world, in the midst of the trials and tribulations of real-world events and circumstances.
The Israelites were in their beginnings as a people shepherds; their longing for a homeland was not primarily for lands to cultivate as farmers, but as pastures for their flocks. The importance of having good shepherds and the consequences of bad shepherds was not lost on them. Good shepherds meant prosperity and peace. Bad shepherds meant sure and certain destruction. The founding fathers of the Israelites were shepherds; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. Moses is purified for his mission by leaving the safe space of a palace and being forced out into the wilderness to labor as a shepherd. And the greatest of the Israelite kings, King David, is introduced to us as a shepherd.
Christ’s testimony to being the Good Shepherd is not simply poetic musing, but a practical statement of God’s response to real-world concerns.
And as I said, the promise of the Lord revealing himself as God the shepherd of his people had revolutionary resonance at a time when the Israelites were ruled by the corrupt Herodian kings, who themselves were controlled by a foreign power—the Roman emperor, with all this corruption propped up by priests and prophets who were in their thrall.
The words of the Lord Jesus, testifying that he is the Good Shepherd, would have been heard as an answer to the desperate cries of the Israelites for God to act as he had acted in the past to free them from the Egyptian pharaoh at the time of the Exodus or from their Babylonian overlords at the time of the great exile. The people longed for God to deal with the Herods and the Romans and everyone colluding with them as God had dealt with Pharaoh and the Babylonians.
So you see, Christ is not inviting the Israelites (or us for that matter) to lose ourselves in thoughts of a carefree existence beyond the trials and terrors of this world. But he is telling us that he has come into this world, the real world, to deal with the caprice and cruelty of men and women like Herod or Caesar and those who collude with them, like worldly priests and false prophets.
But most importantly, the powers that undergird tyrants and human corruption are not merely human agents, but the darker powers of sin and death and the devil. And the Good Shepherd, who is God in Christ, will face these dark powers down directly, he will not run from them. That’s what the cross is!
That’s the mission of the Good Shepherd: to stand athwart the dark powers that deprive us of the abundance of life that God intends for his people to enjoy, to stand athwart these powers and to fight.
The image of the Good Shepherd is not one of a retreat or withdrawal from the world, but of confrontation with the dark powers who defy God and claim that this world belongs to them, and belongs to them to do with as they will. It’s not the mission of the Good Shepherd to withdraw his people, his flock from the world, but to assert that this world belongs to God and to take it back from those who would make the pastures for his flock into a wasteland. This is who the Lord Jesus is and this is what his mission is all about.
One more insight about Christ the Good Shepherd:
The shepherds of the Israelites were the heroes of the Israelites, but they were heroes who were so often unknown and unappreciated, and even maligned. The economy, and therefore the livelihood of people, depended upon their work, and bad shepherds could bring about catastrophe, starvation, and death.
But they were considered by polite society to be uncouth and unsophisticated. They lived apart from society, on the margins of settled towns, cities, and villages.
Shepherding was for the most part the vocation of solitary males, who were dispossessed in some way, oftentimes younger sons without inheritance or worldly prospects. Shepherds who were without property were also for the most part without wives or children, and their way of life was nomadic and unsettled and isolated.
They lived on the peripheries and would have been rough, tough, and physically strong. Fierce and capable in a fight and powerful enough to fend off attacks from wild animals, bandits, and marauders.
If they smelled like their sheep it was not the smell of cleanliness or perfume but of hard work and danger. Shepherds would go into situations and places that most people would dare not go.
Shepherds were the first line of defense in times of trouble, and the crook or staff they carried was not a scepter or a decorative accessory, but a practical tool and if need be, a weapon. The lambs they protected might have been meek and mild, but the shepherds were most assuredly not.
When you think about Christ the Good Shepherd, think about all that.
I think at times we settle for an image of Christ that is limited to reassurance and comfort, and that image can become not so much an icon of Christ but an idol.
This idol hems in the risk and danger of the Gospel (of following Christ), and so whatever we gain in safety and security we lose in terms of reality and purpose.
The end result is a Church that retreats in the face of threats, pursues accommodation in the face of corruption, and assimilates itself into culture, rather than bearing witness to a unique way of life.
In several opening prayers for Mass, we invoke Christ as being “brave.” That should strike us, and perhaps cut us to the heart. Our reductions of Christ, our idols of Christ, are rarely if ever brave. But if Christ is not brave, what good is he? And if Christ is not our brave shepherd, then how will we ever muster the courage to do what he asks us to do?