A friend of mine has a hard time with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. She says, “I just can’t get past the image of a man leading a bunch of dumb, smelly, non-melodically bleating sheep around so they can be sheared against their will and eventually eaten.” Wow! With an image like that, I’d be turned off too—especially since one of those out-of-tune sheep is supposed to be me!
So let’s take a few minutes to reflect on the image of God (and Jesus) as the Good Shepherd. The image is an ancient one found throughout the Old Testament. Psalm 23 is perhaps the best known example. It begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack.” In other words, with God I have all that I need. The psalm describes the specific care the shepherd has for his sheep. First he leads them. Sheep can’t be herded from behind like cows. They need to be led. And where does the shepherd lead his sheep? To green pastures and refreshing water. He also guides them along the right path. This means the sheep don’t have to know where they’re going. No GPS required. They just have to stick close to the shepherd. Even if the shepherd leads the sheep through a dark and dangerous valley, they have nothing to fear for the shepherd is with them. So far the image is very strong and consoling.
In the New Testament Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. In John 10 he adds a few more dimensions to this traditional image. He says, I know my sheep and they know me. Their knowledge of each other is mutual. It is not one-sided. How do the sheep know their shepherd so well? By hanging around with him so much. They know his appearance, his voice, and (let’s face it) his smell. We might ask, do we ‘hang around with Jesus our Good Shepherd? How might we do this? Through our prayer, our reading of scripture, our worship with others, and our pondering of the people and events in our daily lives.
Jesus adds another aspect to the image: a good shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” If wolves attack the sheep or robbers come to steal them away, the hired man who doesn’t own the sheep will likely run away. But not the shepherd who owns the sheep. He defends them with his life. Why? Because the sheep are valuable to him! He has invested himself in them! Translation: I am valuable to God. God has invested God’s own self in me! In fact, God sees good in me even when I fail to see it in myself.
Now all images of God and of Jesus limp. So, even the beautiful image of the Good Shepherd falls short (as my friend pointed out earlier.) Some people, for example, just don’t like being compared to sheep. I can see why. Sheep are timid, easily panicked, and vulnerable to the herd mentality. They have no major means of defense—except to run away. Of all livestock, they need the most care. Sheep are creatures of habit and easily get into ruts. They resist being sheared even though too much wool on a sheep can cause it to be easily “cast,” that is flipped over on its back and helpless to get up again. And finally, sheep are competitive for dominance in the herd. Being compared to a sheep then is not very flattering, but if we’re honest, we probably can see a few of these ovine traits in ourselves from time to time.
But there are so many aspects of the image of the Good Shepherd that are so beautiful (God really, really cares for us), so right on (God is with us always—even during our dark valley days), so consoling (Jesus knows and loves us individually), so amazing (Jesus laid down his life for us), and so challenging (I can stray from the Good Shepherd’s love), that the image of the Good Shepherd is likely to endure for a long, long, time. (Baaa!)
What are your thoughts and feelings toward the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?