The Good Shepherd

The parable of the Good Shepherd. Crucial to understanding what John is teaching by this parable is Ezekiel 34. The bulk of Ezekiel’s ministry took place between 593 and 586 B.C., not in Jerusalem but in Babylon with his exiled people. It is presumed that he accompanied the exiles to Babylon, (Iraq today), when Judea and Jerusalem fell for the first time, but not the last, to the Babylonian army in 598 B.C. The Babylonians took young King Jehoiachin into exile, and put upon the throne in Jerusalem Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah. Ezekiel was opposed to most of the policies of King Zedekiah, especially this king’s anti-Babylonian policies. He knew that if Babylon returned to Jerusalem, it would be the end of the Kingdom of Judah. In Babylon Ezekiel thunders against the leadership back in Jerusalem, “Should not the shepherds of the flock feed the sheep instead of feeding themselves? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, but you do not feed the sheep.”

The Lord God decides that he himself will take over as shepherd of his flock. “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his sheep when some have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep, and I will make them lie down…. I will seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the crippled, strengthen the weak, and I will watch over the fat and strong. I will feed them in justice.” Ezekiel’s thoughts and expressions are woven into John’s parable of the Good Shepherd. In the parable it is Jesus rather than the Lord God of Ezekiel’s parable who becomes the shepherd of the sheep. John attributes to Jesus these words, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Since John composes his gospel in the nineties of the first Christian century he must have in mind someone or some group of leaders of the Jews who were, in his opinion, not good shepherds. They were leading their people astray by their rejection of Jesus as Messiah (Christ) and Son of God.

John writes on two levels: the time of Jesus in the thirties, and his own time in the nineties. In the time of Jesus, as far as we can tell from John’s gospel and other New Testament documents, the hired employee who flees when the wolf approaches the flock is the high priestly clique overseeing the temple. The wolf could be the Roman Empire occupying the Holy Land. The high priests had become the puppets of the Roman governors. Jesus’ invasion and cleansing of the temple is directed primarily against this group of leaders. However, by the time John writes, the temple was gone and so was the priesthood of the temple. The main antagonists of John’s time were the Pharisaic scholars (scribes) who led the Jews by their interpretation of the Torah (teaching of Moses). The bitter confrontations of John 7-9 reflect antagonism between the Jewish synagogue and the Christian synagogue, the Church. John 1:17 already refers to this antagonism, “The Torah was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John seems to see the Pharisees not only as the hired help who flee, but even as the wolf who attacks the flock.

Do they know their people? John does not think so. But Jesus does, “I know mine and mine know me.” This relationship reflects an even deeper relationship, a divine relationship,“Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” John continues, “I will lay down my life for my sheep.” John refers to Jesus’ death as a martyrdom for the benefit of the sheep. Next John legitimizes the Christian mission beyond Judaism to the Gentiles, to all nations, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Note how these words attributed to Jesus reflect Ezekiel 34, “I will bring them (the sheep) out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries….” Although Ezekiel refers to the dispersed of Israel, the outreach beyond Israel was already expressed by Isaiah 66:18, 21, “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues, and they shall come and see my glory…, and some of them I will take for priests and for Levites….”

What are some catecheses (instructions) John may intend through this parable? One instruction is the divine intention that the flock of Christ must be one flock.  Another catechesis is the equality of Father and Son. John seals this teaching with these words, “I and the Father are one!”

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