Some thoughts about shepherds. Fr. James Martin, SJ, in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage notes that most of Jesus’ parables are agricultural in nature, with some nod toward those who harvest the seas for their living; very few are rooted in his own livelihood, carpentry (or more specifically, tecton, a general term for one who works in the building/craft trades). Yet Jesus grew up in Nazareth amongst his neighbors who labored in those areas. Thus, Jesus, while himself not a farmer or fisherman would be familiar through his extended relationships. We are left to speculate the “common knowledge” about shepherds and the care of sheep and what ideas Jesus might have held.
Clearly all we can do is speculate based upon the parables and stories Jesus told that were recorded in Scripture – but as John 20 notes, not all was written down, but enough that you may believe.
A critical element of our modern reading of this text is what idea/notions do we hold about sheep, shepherds, and the like. In my time I have heard homilies that ascribe absolute loyalty as a trait between sheep and shepherd. I have heard remarks that sheep are perhaps the dumbest animals alive and that shepherds were lazy, untrustworthy scoundrels. You can read all manner of remarks about shepherding and sheep in internet posts and blogs. For the majority of readers, safe to say without any real experience of their own, what are we to make of all this.
Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar and Jewish. She brings an interesting voice to the conversation in her recent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. She writes:
“[Modern Christian] Commentators first conclude that Jewish listeners , or at least enough of them, would have despised shepherds and therefore seen the parable as challenging social convention by depicting a positive image of shepherds. From both the academic study and the Sunday pulpit, the faithful are told: “Pharisees and scribes would never even have contemplated taking up the task of the shepherd. Shepherds belonged to a class of despised trades.” “The rabbis both revered the shepherd of the Hebrew Bible and classed the contemporary shepherd among robbers and thieves, the outcast” … or the parable “would have caused the Pharisees and scribes, people immensely concerned about cleanness, to imagine themselves involved in a trade they considered unclean.” The inevitable pernicious conclusion is: “In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, . . . Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people.”
She notes that such understanding is based upon references to Philo’s On Agriculture; the Mishnah, Qiddushin 4.14; and the relatively late Midrash on Psalms 23.1– 2. She then proceeds to show why all of these references are misused. For example, Philo’s comment is that it is only the rich and privileged who see shepherding in such a way, an attitude they applied to all trades people, who they consider beneath them. Levine also notes that modern commentators also ignore the numerous positive comments about shepherds made by Philo, the rabbis, the scriptures of Israel, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. How bad can shepherding be? The Lord is a shepherd (Ps. 23.1; see also Isa. 40.11; Ezek. 34.11– 13, 15– 16; 37.24– 25; Jer. 23.2– 4); Rachel tended sheep, as did Zipporah, and they both made splendid wives; David was a shepherd, as was Moses. This is pretty good company.
Levine is commenting on a modern tendency in scripture commentaries to draw black/white contrasts in order to promote a particular understanding. In analyzing Luke’s parable of the “Lost Sheep,” Levine  offers the following as a likely understanding by a first century listener:
The parable presents a main figure— the owner, not the sheep— who realizes he has lost something of value to him. He notices the single missing sheep among the ninety-nine in the wilderness. For him, the missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete. He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself and then with his friends and neighbors. If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of a hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when we find what we have lost? More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it— or him or her— again?
The Good Shepherd. Taking a cue from Levine, Jesus uses the figure of the Good Shepherd to differentiate his ministry from that of the current religious leadership. This chapter should be read in the light of Old Testament passages that castigate shepherds who have failed in their duty (see Jer. 23:1–4; 25:32–38; Zech. 11; and especially Isa. 56:9–12 and Ezek. 34). For example, in Isa. 56 the leaders are both “shepherds” and “watchmen” and they are castigated as “blind” and as those who “lack knowledge” (a charge that echoes forward into the NT; cf. 9:40–41; 10:6).
If God is the true Shepherd of Israel (Ps. 80:1; cf. Ps. 23:1; Isa. 40:10–11), we can understand the measure of the responsibility of those who would care for the flock in his stead. Those entrusted with care of the people of God/flock must be faithful to the covenant. But Israel’s shepherds on more than one occasion failed in their responsibility. This is why God promises to give them a true, faithful, and loyal shepherd: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23).
Lest we only think of the shepherd in terms of tender care and concern for the flock, thoughts that are legitimate for the ancient world as for the modern, we should not overlook the fact that for people in biblical times other associations were also connected by the term. The shepherd was an autocrat over his flock, and passages are not lacking where the shepherd imagery is used to emphasize the thought of sovereignty. Jesus is thus set forth in this allegory as the true Ruler of his people in contrast to all other shepherds.
Jesus is rebuking the religious authorities as bad shepherds. The condemnation of the shepherds would have been a theme well understood from the OT narrative. Crucial to the identification of the author’s purpose at this point is the necessary realization that he is writing about Jesus with the text of Ezekiel 34 in clear view. (Note: it would be good to pause at this point and read Ezekiel 34) In that passage, Ezekiel, speaking God’s word, rebukes and condemns the authorities of his own time. They too had fed themselves rather than their flock. Thus God would take away their position and authority and become the shepherd himself. Finally he would appoint another shepherd after the figure of David. John sees all of this coming true and fulfilled in Jesus, God become shepherd. Thus John makes clear that the glory of God is being revealed in the pastoral metaphor of shepherd in that Jesus’ fidelity to his sheep, his sacrifice for them, will stand in contrast to the failure of the blinded, bullying authorities of John 9.
The metaphors come fast and often in John 10. There are the sheep — easily identified as the flock that Jesus intends to lead into good pasture (v. 9), those whom he knows by name and who recognize his voice (vv. 3–4, 14), those whom he intends to defend against thieves and robbers (vv. 1, 8, 10) and whom he wishes to join together with all others who, listening to his voice, will come into the one fold (v. 16). Jesus will affect all this because he is the Good Shepherd (vv. 11, 14), loved by the Father because he will lay down his life for the sheep. It is this act of total, loving self-sacrifice that is mentioned again and again as the central motif. Appearing first in v.11 as the good shepherd title is introduced, it occurs again in verses 15, 17, and twice in verse 18. Though the shepherd-sheep metaphor was well-known in the OT, this laying down of the shepherd’s life is something new. It is the characteristic function of Jesus. He is the good shepherd especially because of his willing self-sacrifice.