Jesus as the Good Shepherd
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?
I love the image of the Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A couple weeks ago at Bible Camp, we re-enacted Psalm 23 for the children and it was just beautiful! We are Jesus’ sheep with both good and bad likenesses. I try to follow wherever God leads even though I am clueless about where we are going at times.
Thanks for sharing.
This was beautiful. My favorite. Mom & Dad used to have a beautiful wall hanging in stone blue in color of the Good Shepard. I use to admire it everyday. One of my favorites of Jesus. It tells me not matter what i am safe in Gods care. And when I left church he called me back through the praying of my moms daily rosary. She never gave up on one of us 6 to come back to church. And God instilled with in my heart that I would be the one. And Now being a fellow third order Franciscan God showed he cared enough to see the good in me that he led me to this order. And other church activities. Eucharist minister of communion. CCW Secretarty and I am honored to have Jesus chose these tasks for me. Blessings Siochan Agus Maitheas Kathy OFS
As a child, Psalm 23 was reassuring. My dad was Methodist and my mom was Catholic. There was a measure of security in knowing that they both believed in some of the same ideals…the same God. At the time, I didn’t realized how important it was to see God as a unifying Source beyond my family.
For me, a life of faith is about being led and leading others. It is about a God who is a gentle teacher and leader who guides me and gets me back on track time and time again. Courage and stamina for my journey comes from trusting the Shepherd.
How blest I am to be allowed to follow The Good Shepard!! I need him to lead me; I cannot make it on my own.
I love your writings Melanie. Thank you for elaborating on my thoughts and feelings. Nancy
Years ago while on a silent, self-directed retreat, I read a book called “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller. It is both fascinating and inspiring for insight on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The author elaborates on Psalm 23 line by line ~ very interesting reading. In fact, now I think I’ll read it again. Thanks, Melannie!
I do appreciate your thoughts and writings. Ps 23 is one of my ‘staples’ and about 12 years ago I was visiting a lady whose health was deteriorating by the week. She lived alone, no family, but she said she didn’t need anyone else as she had The Good Shepherd who was always by her side. As her condition worsened her faith in, and love for, her ‘Shepherd’ was tangible. The Psalm had been committed to memory years before, and her trust and belief in the words of the Psalm had taken root into her very bones. I found the whole experience humbling and something never to be forgotten. God bless you!
Ed and I have read the book”A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23″ by W. Phillip Keller also and found it to be very interesting. So much care is involved in caring for sheep. And we are very much like sheep. So the thought of Jesus as our good shepherd is very comforting. Thanks for your insights, Melannie. Your writings are always so good.
How I love surprises!
I was just preparing a prayer service for a woman on hospice.
I had chosen to reflect on Psalm 23. Then I opened my emails and here’s this reflection on psalm 23. Thank you!
I do love all the beautiful and comforting images of God in this psalm.
” I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life.” v. 6
Thank you, God.
My favorite picture is one where Jesus is carrying the lost sheep around His neck, I haven’t been able to find it since I saw it in Father Dave Benz office. http://www.goodsalt.com/search/jesus_and_sheep.html
Thanks Sister! I’ve been reading with you in Living Faith for many, many years!!! I Love, Love, Love your writing!!!
Hi Sister Melanie,
I found yor blog today after reading your article – “The Sign of the Cross”, in the September issue of “Give Us This Day”. I really enjoyed the article and the connection this simple yet profoundly holy gesture has to our faith. Sometimes we do religious things so often the significance and mystery behind them is lost…
Then I went on your blog, and found your article about the Good Shepherd which is one I deeply identify with, and I wanted to thank you so much for more material for my prayer and reflection.
I look forward to exploring and reading the material on your blog on a more regular basis. I know you are coming to my area in October and I am happy to have the opportunity to hear you speak and meet you.
Dear Patty, Thank you for your response to my blog. I’m happy you found it! I hope I get to meet you in October! Thanks again for writing! Sr. Melannie