The Good Shepherd

In the book of John, Jesus has a habit of using very ordinary things to get at some pretty lofty ideas. He healed a blind man with some mud he made from his own spit, he announced the coming of heaven to earth by changing some dirty water into new wine, he often used very common and everyday ideas to convey deep spiritual truths. And people didn't really get him all the time. When he told a man named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born from above" (John 3) in order to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus thought he meant that he actually had to be "born again"... literally. When he told a woman that he would give her "living water," she pointed out that he didn't have a bucket for the well. What others took to be simple, mundane, and ordinary; Jesus took to have profound spiritual meaning.

Once, when he was at a party and the wine was running low his mother asked him to get some more wine - no big deal, right? - but Jesus, perhaps with a flair for the dramatic, responded, "O Woman... My hour has not yet come." I can imagine Mary saying, "uh... ok..." and turning to the servants saying, "not sure what that's about, but just do what he says." And of course the water turns to wine, a symbol of the restoration and ultimately of the coming of heaven to earth. The ordinary proved to be quite out of the ordinary.

In similar fashion, John's Jesus uses ordinary language to make profound claims about his own identity. He says that he's the bread of life. What's so special about bread? Bread is a daily thing (we at least pray that it is). And yet, for Jesus it is a symbol of God's salvation... an allusion to the manna God gave to the people when the people were wandering in the wilderness. He says that he's the "light of the world."

He also says that he's the "gate" - I love this one.

A gate? Really?

When Jesus uses a "gate" to describe himself, it says that the disciples "...did not understand what he was saying to them." Well why would they? Here is their Messiah, their coming king who is to save them from their oppression and bring them to prosperity. He should be comparing himself to warriors and lightning and stuff... but here he's calling himself a gate... and a gate for sheep enter? Not even like a pretty golden gate or anything?

And then we get to the shepherd... Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Again... not "great king" or "mighty savior" but "good shepherd." How perplexing this must have been for the disciples. How is a shepherd going to save them? You see, the fact is, shepherds were not what you'd consider to be of the "upper echelon" of society. If these disciples saw themselves as poor, oppressed, and in need of salvation (which is what they were), then a shepherd was in the same situation they were in. A shepherd would have been in just as poor a situation as they were.

Remember the Christmas story... do you remember that the angels came to shepherds in fields to announce that a savior was born to them? Shepherds needed a savior! ...especially Jewish ones.

The Jews were among the conquered nations of Rome and when Rome conquered a nation (under the banner of the Pax Romana) they were treated like conquered people. It took time before the conquered people were really considered Roman... in fact there was quite a process to becoming Roman. In the meantime, they were ruled pretty harshly, especially those in the lower classes of the people. As such they were taxed very harshly. Rome demanded large percentages of profits to be given in support of the Pax Romana--for Rome's cause of conquering more nations. After all, world domination wasn't cheap. Shepherds were on the under side of the imperial dominion, so they were among those taxed most harshly. They were left with little to feed their families and they were enslaved to the Roman system. And, because they were Jewish, once Rome took their share Herod, the so-called king of the Jews, would take his. Just to be nice, Rome allowed the Jewish authorities (whom the Romans controlled) to tax their own people for the maintenance of what had become a corrupt temple system. To maintain the temple and uphold the temple laws, the Jewish leaders (who were also being taxed by the Romans), needed their own tax system. So everyday people--like shepherds--were double-taxed. They were taxed harshly by the Romans and harshly by the Jewish leaders. So when angels came to shepherd to announce the coming of the Messiah, the new king to liberate them from their slavery to the empire and to their own leaders, you can see why they thought it might be worth checking it out.

But why would Jesus, the one who's supposed to save the world, compare himself to a shepherd. Why would there be any hope in someone who's stuck in the same mess they're already in?

Well, while the immediate circumstances certainly didn't lend themselves to such a comparison, there's a part of their tradition that put a lot of stock in good shepherds. The leaders of the people of Israel--particularly their religious leaders--were often called the shepherds of Israel. Because of the troubled ciurcumstances of shepherds during Jesus' day, and because of the precarious situation in which the Jews found themselves under Roman rule, they may not have appealed to this tradition much. But the leaders of Israel were supposed to lead the people and care for them, not rule over them. And apparently the religious leaders of Jesus' day weren't doing a very good job. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he is making alluding to the possibility that there are bad shepherds, and thus he is alluding to Ezekiel 34.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
Jesus, by referring to himself as a good shepherd, is subtly indicting the religious leaders of his day as "false shepherds" who, instead of caring for the sheep, only care for themselves. Of course they didn't see it that way. They needed enough money to feed themselves, right? They needed enough to maintain their temple, right? They needed to survive, right? So instead of leading the sheep, caring for them and giving themselves up for their sheep, they used their sheep for their own profits. "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?"

And we cannot miss that this is also an indictment against Rome! In verse 8 (in Ez. 34) God says, "my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd..." The shepherds have abandoned the sheep to the "wild animals." Who are the wild animals? It's the Romans! The Romans are devouring God's people. Now the Romans would have taken offense to that. Romans saw themselves as saviors to their conquered people, bringing culture and order to the savages. Of course they weren't the wild animals. They were the saviors, bringing peace, the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana! But, quite subtly, Jesus calls them wild animals.

But it doesn't just end with judgment of the bad shepherds. Jesus is still saying that he is the good shepherd... Ezekiel continues:
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (Ez 34:11-14)
The hope, the promise, is that God will be the good shepherd. God will become the shepherd of the people! And how will God be a shepherd? Not by ruling over the people, not by using them or ruling over them, but by caring for them feeding them "lie down in good grazing land."Is this not reminiscent of Psalm 23... it should be...
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul."
Counterintuitively - by comparing himself to something as mundane and common as a shepherd - Jesus is claiming for himself a role that only God can fill. Instead of claiming lordship - which can too easily be confused with the type demonstrated by Caesar and by Herod - Jesus promises that he will "lay down [his] life for the sheep" instead of exploiting power over them. He is demonstrating the power of God in the humility and simplicity of a shepherd, of someone who is not above them but shares in the mess they're in and goes before them... leads them.

And he refuses to let this promise only be for an elite few! He says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also." Jesus reveals God to us not as a tyrant king but as a loving shepherd who restores our soul. He reveals to us a God of grace... a God who refuses to restrict grace from anyone for God's own benefit. This is a God who will die before allowing a sheep to become prey. This is a God who joins us in our struggle and leads us to green pastures.