Jesus the Good Shepherd
‘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.’
There can be little doubt in my mind that when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the Good Shepherd, he is clearly and intentionally evoking the image of the shepherd in the Twenty-third Psalm. In that treasured psalm, in which the Psalmist boldly proclaims, “the LORD is my shepherd,” we learn that this shepherd is indeed a good shepherd—one who even walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Thus, it seems to me that when Jesus claims that he is the Good Shepherd, he is making a bold Christological claim with respect to his lordship, and his divine nature.
That claim, though, is not only christological, but also deeply pastoral. All of the wonderful images evoked in the Twenty-third Psalm, images ascribed to God, the LORD, are also ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. When we read that he “leads us beside still waters” we recall the words of Jesus in St. John, “my peace I give you … a peace which the world cannot give.” And when we hear of a “table spread before us,” and that in his presence we “shall not want,” we may think again of Jesus proclaiming “I am the bread of life” and “those who come to me will never be hungry.” And when we gaze upon Jesus lifted high upon the cross, we recall that truly he is with us, even in the “valley of the shadow of death.” Yes, his claim, his bold claim, “I am the good shepherd,” is at once Christological, and at the same time pastoral. But, is not the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus the greatest act of pastoral care that God can give us?
When Jesus claims, as well, that he knows his own and his own know him, this is another radical claim about his identity as the Good Shepherd. At first this seems at odds with the prologue of John’s gospel, in which it is stated “he came to his own and they knew him not.” Yet our Good Shepherd has the ability to seek out and work away on even the most hardened and troubled hearts, to gather in even the most skeptical, the most broken-hearted, the most disillusioned, and in his great care for them, call them his own; and they by a wondrous miracle, come to recognize him for who he is—the Good Shepherd.
His reach is so expansive that “his own” refers not only to his own people – a clear referenced to the Jewish nation – but to another flock, as well. Certainly this is a reference to the gentiles, who in Christ were to be grafted onto the true vine, who equally needed to receive God’s loving pastoral care which is brought forth in the Incarnation. He has another flock—and lest we forget, that “other” flock is those of us who do not have Jewish ancestry. Through God’s graciousness, we are grafted onto the true vine.
Finally, his loving embrace is so expansive that we recognize our Good Shepherd as Lord not only of the living, but also of the dead. His flock extends beyond time and space, and beyond the grave. In heaven and on earth, there is but one Lord, and one flock. The Good Shepherd truly is what he says he is. He is the Lord of all things, of all time, of all space. Thus, we have no cause to fear the grave, for our Good Shepherd has gone before us and conquered the grave and has made it for all people a bed of hope.