Written by Pastor Ed
I am the Good Shepherd
November 5, 2017
John 10: 11-18
Ezekiel 34: 1-6
Perhaps one of the best known and most beloved images in the Bible is that of the Shepherd. People may not know any other Bible passage except the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And the image of Jesus as the good shepherd is one that is depicted in a great deal of art, generally in something that looks like this.
But as several commentators pointed out, a good shepherd probably wouldn’t end up looking like that. I mean, have you ever been around sheep? Their wool in oily with lanolin, and if they have been out in the wild, or even in a local pasture, they most likely have all kinds of briers, burs, and other things stuck in their wool. Most sheep I have ever been around, and I was raised around sheep, I would not want to put around my neck! But if a shepherd did, this would perhaps be a better depiction.
But Jesus, of course is not referring to a literal shepherd. The image of shepherd is used throughout the Old Testament in a number of ways. The Hebrew word for Shepherd comes from the word “to feed” so the shepherd is one who feeds the sheep, and by extension, looks after the flock seeing to their best interests. In the Old Testament, the scriptures that the people of Jesus’ time would have used, the image is used for numerous leaders of the people.
So in Numbers 27, Moses is told by God that he can view the promised land, but won’t be able to enter it. And so Moses says to God, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num. 27: 16-17)
There are numerous places where the image of God as shepherd is spoken of. We’ve already mentioned Psalm 23 and many people would also think of Isaiah 40: 11 which Handel set to music in “Messiah” “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
But the picture is not all rosy and when Jesus speaks of being the “good” shepherd, as opposed to the hired hand, I suspect he has the prophets in mind, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel have strong words for the “shepherds” of the day.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord… It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” ( Jer. 23: 1-2) It is a charge that is repeated numerous times by Jeremiah. But perhaps the biggest indictment of the shepherds of Israel, comes from the prophet Ezekiel in the passage Ted read from Ezekiel 34.
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” (Ez. 34: 2b-3) He goes on to say that because the shepherds only looked out for themselves, the sheep have been scattered, because there was no shepherd. (34:5) Therefore, God says, “I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out.” (34:11) “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (34: 16)
And again, he’s not talking about literal sheep and shepherds. In fact, in some places the translations even use the words “priest” or “king.” So remember who Jesus is talking to in John 10? He has just healed a man born blind who has been interrogated by the Pharisees, the religious rulers of the day, who eventually kick the man out of the temple and who said to Jesus, “certainly we are not blind, are we?” (John 9:40)
So as Jesus invokes the image of a “good shepherd” it would not be difficult for those standing around listening to get his point. In contrast to those who would use their positions for their own gain, or who don’t look after those who are the most vulnerable, Jesus is willing to heal a blind man, even on the Sabbath! “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says, “you can take a guess as to who the bad shepherds are.” They are more like the hired hands who run away at the first sign of trouble, caring more about themselves than about the sheep.
And it’s not a stretch to recall the words of Isaiah or Jeremiah that God himself would become the shepherd, or Ezekiel’s words that God would “set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ez. 34: 23) Is it any wonder that the religious leaders of the day were becoming upset with Jesus? Not only is he calling them to task for not being good shepherds, but he is setting himself up as the fulfillment of Isaiah and Ezekiel’s promises.
Clearly John is setting his story up as the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees increases and the religious leaders of the day begin to plot against him. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said and a good shepherd looks out for the sheep and is willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the sheep. Jesus modeled that in his own life and calls his followers to do the same.
Unfortunately, as in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, not all shepherds follow the example that Jesus set. In his book, The Health and Wealth Gospel, researcher and author Bruce Barron examines the claims of many televangelists and others who proclaim that God wants everybody to be healthy and wealthy, and if you only have enough faith, you can have it all.
Unfortunately that’s not the gospel I read in my Bible, and generally the only ones who get wealthy off of that preaching are the preachers themselves. When preachers, I won’t call them pastors because most of them have no personal relationship with people in their congregations, fly around in their private jets, drive expensive cars and live in multi-million dollar mansions, one has to question which kind of shepherd they are and whether they have the good of the sheep in mind or are more like the shepherds of Ezekiel’s day.
As Carol Brooks writes in an article entitled Lifestyles of The Tele-Evangelist… Fleecing The Flock.
“L. Ron Hubbard (Founder of Scientology) once said “Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.” While our modern day evangelists have not started their own religion, they have unquestionably improved on Hubbard’s idea. Capitalizing on Christianity has proved to be far more lucrative than starting a new religion.”
And then there are those who prey on the vulnerable in their congregations to satisfy their own sexual appetites. While we are much more aware of this issue now than some years ago, unfortunately, it has not gone away, and won’t go away any time soon. As you know this has been an area that I have worked in for the past 30 years, in training pastors and working with congregations who have experienced misconduct by shepherds who looked after their own needs rather than the needs of the flock. It’s something I hope to continue to work on in retirement.
In any of those ways, it is not only the primary victims who suffer, but there are consequences for all other pastors as well as for the church as a whole. When people see preachers living extravagant lifestyles, living off the contributions of thousands of people who give out of desperation hoping that somehow they will reap a reward, people have a hard time reconciling that with a shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. When a pastor takes advantage of vulnerable people to satisfy their own desires, people view all pastors with suspicion and see the church as an unsafe place to bring their own needs and hurts.
When any leader, whether religious or secular, uses their position to primarily enhance their own power, wealth, and prestige, they are no longer following the example of the Good Shepherd. In the business world it’s called a fiduciary responsibility – to act in the best interest of your client rather than in what’s the most lucrative for you. It’s what Jesus modeled, and what Jesus calls all who would be shepherds to follow. We’re not perfect, and pastors and leaders make mistakes, believe me.
But there is a standard that we are all called to, and especially those who claim any position of leadership which carries with it a responsibility to care for others. Most pastors that I know follow the example of Jesus and care for their flock, leading them to nourishment and caring for the vulnerable. In that way we follow the example of him who said, “I am the good shepherd.”