This two-part blog for Lent is adapted from an article first published in the 2012 Journal of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, No. 27.
From the beginning of time, God’s call creates in human hearts the desire to follow Him. We hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us by name, and we follow Him because we know his voice, not asking why we are leaving, nor where we will go.
Loving and following Jesus, we want to know him more and more. Jesus understood his relationship with the Father and his mission on earth in the light of his Jewish faith. He studied Torah and proclaimed the words of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue. The Hebrew scriptures are, in a sense, a window into the mind of Christ; they help us better understand the Christian faith and can help our relationship with Jesus come alive in a new way.
In Part I of this blog, I look at the scriptural roots of the parable of the Good Shepherd, each verse of which was laden with associations for his Jewish audience for whom the image of God as Shepherd had been established over thousands of years. In Part II, we will look at a defining moment in Jesus‘ life, the raising of Lazarus, to better understand him as the Good Shepherd and discern what heeding his call to freedom means for us today.
The Shepherd in the Hebrew Scriptures
God the Shepherd has called us since the beginning of time: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” John 1:1-2 When God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils, His exhale called Adam into being. We can imagine the sound of God’s breath as the first call of the Shepherd.
God called to Abram, “Lekh lekha! Go you forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.” Genesis 12:1 Later, God called Abram by a new name, Abraham, declaring, “I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land you are living in . . . to own in perpetuity, and I will be your God.” Genesis 17:5, 8 Moses was leading his flock when God called him by name and gave him a mission to free the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt and bring them “to a land where milk and honey flow.” Exodus 3:1-10, 17
God works slowly, through time. Over thousands of years God and the Hebrew people learned to live together using the image of the Shepherd as a point of meeting between humanity and the ineffable divine.
When Jacob gave his deathbed blessing to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, he said, “May God who has been my shepherd from my birth until this day . . . bless these boys.” Genesis 48:15 After the Hebrew people crossed the Red Sea and were about to embark on their long sojourn in the desert, Moses convinced God to act as their shepherd. Moses had to bargain with God, who at first offered to send an angel in His stead, expressing reluctance to travel among the Hebrews whom God called a stiff-necked people. Moses won God over by reminding Him, “You yourself have said, ‘I know you by name and you have won my favor.’” Exodus 33:1-17
Knowing he would not enter the Promised Land, Moses asked God to designate a new leader over the Hebrew people:
who will go out before them, who will come back before them, who will lead them out, who will bring them back; so that the community of God will not be like a flock that has no shepherd. Numbers 27:15-17
When Israel wanted a king to replace Saul, God accepted His people’s desire for a shepherd-leader. Following God’s instructions, Samuel went to Jesse to choose a king from among Jesse’s sons:
Jesse presented his seven sons to Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “God has not chosen these.” He then asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” He answered, “There is still one left, the youngest; he is out looking after the sheep.”. . . God said, “Come, anoint him for this is the one.” 1 Samuel 16:10-11, 13
The anointed shepherd-king, David, confidently and tenderly proclaims, “God is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Ps. 23:1
By the time the prophet Ezekiel wrote from the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people had traveled long with their Shepherd God, and knew well the qualities God expected from their leaders, whom God called “the shepherds of Israel.” Ezekiel 34:1 When those shepherds failed in their task and betrayed their own people, God called them to account. God’s accusations against the leaders conversely describe the qualities that had long been exercised by leaders like Moses, Joshua, and David:
Shepherds, the Lord God says this: Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shepherds ought to feed their flock, yet you have fed on milk, you have dressed yourselves in wool, you have sacrificed the fattest sheep, but failed to feed the flock. You have failed to make the weak sheep strong, or to care for the sick ones, or bandage the wounded ones. You have failed to bring back strays or look for the lost . . . .For lack of a shepherd they have scattered, to become the prey of any wild animal . . . my flock has been scattered all over the country; no one bothers about them and no one looks for them. Ezekiel 34:2-10
I am going to look after my flock myself and keep all of it in view. As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered during the mist and darkness. . . . I shall gather them together . . . and bring them back to their own land. . . . I myself will pasture my sheep. I myself will show them where to rest. I will look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them. Ezekiel 34:11-16
God ended His proclamation by renewing His promises to Israel:
And men will learn that I, their God, am with them and that they, the House of Israel, are my people. . . And you, my sheep, are the flock I shall pasture, and I am your God–it is the Lord God who speaks. Ezekiel 34:30-1
With this scripture in mind, Jesus proclaims the Good Shepherd parable within a significant historical setting: the occasion of the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, which commemorated the purification of the Temple after its profanation. 1 Maccabees 4:36; 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 According to an ancient source, the liturgy for the Dedication called for the reading of scripture passages with the shepherd as their central theme. See, Sofia Cavalletti, The History of the Kingdom of God; From Creation to Parousia, (Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, 2012), pp. 164-65. This feast offered an opportunity for Jesus to present himself as the antithesis of those shepherds who fed only themselves. Jesus stands in Solomon’s Portico in the Temple. John 10:22-23 His listeners know Ezekiel 34. He declares boldly, “I am the Good Shepherd.” John 10:11
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 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.” John 10:1-16
In Part II of this blog for Holy Week we will look at what Jesus’ announcement means for us today.