Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
Sheep are wayward creatures, always wandering astray
Humankind is much the same, it’s in our DNA;
Ever envying, ever hankering after greener
Pastures – discontent is part of our demeanour.
Hirelings cannot save us, they’ll quickly run amok
Every time a ravening wolf threatens the flock.
Remember Jesus is The Gate, for both Gentile and Jew:
Didn’t he leave the ninety-nine, just to search for you?
In the Bible, shepherds are not always highly thought of. They were smelly and uneducated. In Goshen in Egypt, where Jacob’s descendants lived as shepherds, they were practically an underclass.
In the past, it seemed to me somewhat curious that Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd, and even as the “gate” into the sheep pen (John 10:9). The imagery of the “gate” refers to the shepherd himself actually lying across the opening to the sheepfold, preventing access to predatory animals. This must have been smelly, dirty and uncomfortable. I realise it reflects the action of a conscientious shepherd who prioritises the safety and wellbeing of his flock, but am still slightly taken aback that Jesus invited such a humble and lowly image of himself.
On the other hand, in ancient Middle Eastern culture the term “shepherd” could be used in a nobler, more metaphorical way, with a kingly association. From the early stages of the Bible, God is seen as shepherding his people, for example when Jacob refers to the one “who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” (Genesis 48:15). Not only did the shepherd provide nourishment and direction, but also (as we often see in the Psalms), safety and protection. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets foretold that punishment would await the bad shepherds of Israel and that in the future God would send a “good shepherd”.
The good shepherd has many qualities: willing to ignore his own needs to safeguard the flock; committed to finding lost sheep that have gone astray; and able to recognise his own sheep and call them by name. Equally, the sheep share distinctive characteristics: helpless, unable to find their way, and with a persistent tendency to wander. Perhaps a little harsh on us, though Isaiah suggests it’s pretty accurate (Is. 53:6).
The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd makes me think of him as the “servant king”. His claim to be Israel’s shepherd clearly points to his kingship, and being the one of whom the prophets spoke. But it is also a humble and sometimes hazardous role, a job without airs and graces, one that involved getting one’s hands dirty. It also makes sense of my own faith journey, and that of most other Christians whom I’ve heard speak. There was nothing random about becoming a Christian: someone was seeking me.
(Shepherd appears on my New Testament: Gospels page).