Contemplating Jesus

THE GREAT SHEPHERD

Posted on by Lucinda M. Vardey

The Good Shepherd by Phillippe de Champaigne 1650-60

Jesus called himself “the good shepherd” on a number of occasions.  The term had appeared frequently in the unfolding Jewish story.   For instance, Moses conversed with God about Joshua being appointed to be “like a shepherd over the sheep of the congregation,”  (Numbers 27:17).  Throughout Old Testament scriptures,  God continuously uses this same simile to portray the relationship between humanity and the Divine.    A shepherd, therefore,  exemplified perfect pastoral leadership not only of others but also as the manner in which God directs and protects our journeys and our souls.    In psalm 78:52 God led “his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.”

Jesus assumes this continuing shepherding role among God’s people.  By doing so, he establishes his relationship not only with God but with those who belong to him: to keep them together, united, as one community under one master in one family of faith.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly reminded his followers of the specifics of a shepherd/sheep relationship.  He came, he said, for “the lost sheep of Israel” and his compassion was sparked by the crowds that followed him  – “harassed and helpless…like sheep without a shepherd.”   But what is Jesus teaching by referring to his followers as sheep?

Sheep are not considered the smartest of animals: in fact they are not able to fend for themselves at all.  Their main activity is grazing and for this they need a secure and protected environment.  The shepherd knows their needs and guides them to pasture wherever he decides.  Therefore sheep don’t have to work out where to go, or what to do, or how to do it.   They just listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow it obediently.

Goats, on the other hand, get into trouble.  They wander off by whim wherever curiosity calls them.  The shepherd wisely separates the goats from the sheep for obvious reasons.    Then there are the sheep, who get lost from the rest of the herd and the shepherd leaves the flock – where there’s safety in numbers – to find and carry home the one most vulnerable.  Jesus assures that none of his own will be orphaned.

Sheep who have proved their allegiance and reliance on their shepherd, who recognize his voice and follow him wherever he takes them, are able to face the wolves that they encounter.  As in psalm 23, they fear no evil because “your rod and your staff comfort me.”

As gentle good shepherd, it is Jesus himself who offers each cheek to be struck, is attacked and lays down his life on behalf of  his own.  Paul calls Jesus  “The Great Shepherd” (Hebrews  13:20-21) because by shedding his blood and dying on the cross, he redeemed all God’s people and saved them from insularity, isolation, loss, bewilderment, dread, lack and fear.  Paul refers to God as a God of  peace, “who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.”

After his resurrection, Jesus assures that he is still shepherding his flock to the peace that only he can bring, the peace that cannot be taken away, the peace – and the joy – that last forever.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.:

(Psalm 23:6)

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