The Model Shepherd

John 10:11-18; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story which we all can relate.  Her husband and a friend went duck hunting on the Flint River.  After a full day on the river, the time came to return to shore and load up for the trip home.  After beaching their boat on the shore, the two men began loading their decoys and guns in a car parked near the shore.  When they returned for the boat, it was no longer there but was floating back in the river some ten feet from the bank. As they waded in after it, the motion their bodies made in the water only pushed the boat farther from them toward the main current of the river.  It soon became apparent that one of them would have to jump into the water and swim to the boat. Taylor’s husband told her he knew it wouldn’t be him. “After all, it wasn’t my boat.”

Jesus is making the same point when he identifies himself as the good or model shepherd. And this metaphor works for his purposes because the vocation of shepherding was both a major economic activity in Palestine in Jesus’ day and was emblematic for the relationship between  God and God’s people in the Hebrew Bible. Here is what we know about shepherding during the time of the gospels, from Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary:

Shepherds led their flocks by walking ahead of them, in contrast with butchers who drove them to slaughter.  Shepherds had individual vocal signals to call their own sheep, and it was effective even if the animals were mixed with other flocks.  The sheep recognized and obeyed the voice of their own shepherds.

Shepherds were expected to see that sheep had food and water; they had to account for the animals in their charge.  When a sheep stumbled into a ditch or crevice, the shepherd pulled it out with a crook or curved staff. If the sheep was injured the shepherd carried it to a safe place across his shoulders and attended to its wounds.  In order to protect the flock against thieves and many predators, including wolves, hyenas, jackals, bears and leopards, shepherds were often armed with a slingshot, a rod, a club and a knife.

In the winter, flocks stayed within a few miles of the villages and at night were brought back to the enclosures of individual farms or put together in a communal fold kept by a guard or doorkeeper.  In the spring and summer, the flocks were driven to higher pastures, in the mountains of Upper Galilee, Samaria and Judea. There, shepherds found large caves or built sheepfolds of dry stones to keep out the wild animals.  In that case, they slept at the door which was the only opening in the wall without a gate.

Shearing occurred twice a year, at the end of the winter and summer grazing; as in the case of the harvest, it was a festive occasion.  Despite the idyllic image of the relationship between shepherd and sheep in popular tradition, the reality is that the animals were raised to be sold, offered as sacrifice, sheared, and eaten.

Shepherding was so much a part of the life of Israel that the word sheep and its cognates, lamb, ewe and ram, appear more than five hundred times in the Bible.  In biblical imagery, God, the king, the leaders, and in the New Testament, Jesus, were allegorized or symbolized as shepherds. The leaders in the biblical story were not always the good “shepherds” they should have been, and many prophets are critical of the corrupt leaders.  (See Ezekiel 34, for a strong example.) The same imagery is found in John 10.

So what does this mean for our lives?  Sheep need a leader. Once they learn the voice of the shepherd, they trust this voice to guide them to green pastures and still waters and deliver them from enemies.  Really, sheep do not know right from wrong without the steady hand of the shepherd. Is Jesus calling us to become “dumb” like the sheep and uncritically trust his voice?  He seems to say a similar thing when he admonished his disciples, saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).  and “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

I think it is clear that Jesus valued children and didn’t see them as dumb.  Rather, Jesus is pointing out that children and sheep do tend to depend upon and trust adults who have their best interests in mind.  And when both children and sheep recognize a good shepherd, they put their faith in their leadership completely. In other words, they no longer need or want to be the shepherd.  They are willing to be led. What does Jesus’ words about sheep and children say about our need to be in control? How easy is it to relinquish control to someone else? In varying degrees, this is one of the western world’s largest challenges and our biggest sins.  We think we know best and are completely capable of steering our own ships.

So how do we do it?  We learn the voice of the shepherd.  And this is the daily task of learning his voice.  This voice is found in scripture, for sure. It is found also in prayer that begins with placing God as the focal point of our life (Our father, who is in heaven, how holy is your name!).  And prayer that invites God’s values to become our values. (Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) When the practice of prayer, Bible study and worship become routine in our life, the voice of the good shepherd comes to us more clearly over the cacophony of daily life that wants the individual to be in control and thus to be threatened by others outside of our control.

In contrast, the voice of the good shepherd tells us that he is in control of all the situations around us.  That he would even sacrifice his own life in order to save ours. So there is no need to worry about safety or what’s around the bend.  And there is no need to be threatened by the other sheep who are in other pens. If the shepherd knows them and they know his voice, then they too are ultimately a part of one flock.  In the shepherd’s flock (God’s Kingdom), all are welcome.

The challenge Jesus left his disciples as he ascended to heaven was that the shepherding will still go on.  But, in the short time between his death and resurrection, something happened to his first followers. Their identity as sheep had been transformed to shepherds.  Once their ears were attuned to the sound of Jesus’ voice and hearts equipped with the guidance of the Spirit, their vocation became like that of their master. They were sent out to find flocks of their own and to “do for them as I did for you.”

  • How does our desire for control keep us from trusting the good shepherd?
  • Why does fear keep us from trusting others and from embracing the diversity of God’s Kingdom?

Excerpts taken from:

Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, p. 80.Crowley: Boston, 1997.

Arav, Rami and John J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary, p.251-253. Fortress: Minneapolis, MN, 1995.