Easter 4 · John 10:11-18 · May 3, 2009
By Erik Herrmann
The Good Shepherd. It’s such a well-known image. It seems to be relevant in every age—from the earliest times in the catacombs where Christ was so often depicted as a youthful Apollonian shepherd, to the modern Sunday school pictures of the gentle Jesus cradling a lamb, the Good Shepherd continues to be the most common and beloved image of the Savior. And this is true even apart from knowledge or experience with sheep, the pasture or the pastoral life. Perhaps, this is because when Jesus uses the image, he transforms it into something new and remarkable. If the essential characteristic of the Good Shepherd is that he “lays down his life for the sheep,” then we have entered into something unique and profound. No longer does the reader dwell on pastoral images. When Christ says that the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd and know him by his voice, one could find analogies in the world of shepherds and sheep, but that is not its immediate or lasting import. Rather our affections are drawn to the kind of intimacy found between the likes of mother and child. My one-year-old might be happily sitting on my knee, when suddenly he hears the voice of his mother and, naturally, all is lost! He is nothing but squirm and scramble, in order to follow the voice that continues to shower him with incomparable love.
But the metaphor of the shepherd also occurs within the larger context of John and the Old Testament scriptures. In the history of Israel, the shepherd image has a long tradition of being applied to the king. Israel’s greatest of kings, David, of course began as a shepherd and his call and anointing explicitly extend his former vocation into his new one: “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people” (Ps 78:70-71; cf. 2 Sam 7:8; 24:17). On the other hand, when the kings of Israel acted as shepherds who treated their sheep like prey, the Lord declared that “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep” (Ez 34:15).
So it is that in the gospel of John, Christ as king is also a significant unfolding theme. Already in chapter one, Nathanael exclaims to Jesus, “You are the king of Israel.” In chapter six, after having fed the 5000, the people try to make Jesus their king. In his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is hailed “King of Israel” by the crowds, and at the passion Jesus’ kingship is the central object of Pilate’s deliberations. So it is that we see the king and shepherd of Israel “lay down his life for the sheep.” In this death, the shepherd is, in fact, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The bleeding of one image into another transforms the image of Christ so that all previous expectations of the messianic shepherd and king are made new. “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them” (10:6). Perhaps this is the case, because the promise of the Good Shepherd is only understandable and believable from the Resurrected One. We contemplate these words after Easter, for the Good Shepherd is he that lays down his life, so that he, may take it up again (10:17). Without the resurrection, all this talk of the shepherd is frankly just plain silly. It is from the far side of Easter that we truly begin to experience the loving voice of the shepherd among us, even as he says to Peter, “feed my lambs … take care of my sheep.”