For the sheep

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. This and the remainder of this week’s post are not part of the Sunday gospel, but are part of the cohesive narrative offered by St. John:  11 I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. 13 This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.

Verse 11 goes beyond the imagery of the good shepherd offered in Ezekiel 34 which does not include a reference to the shepherd’s willingness to lay down his life for the sheep. A possible OT antecedent may lie in the messianic oracle of Zech 13:7-9, in which the death of the shepherd is required so that the flock can be purified. Verse 11 may also have points of contact with Palestinian shepherding practices; a good shepherd may indeed have to give up his life to prevent the decimation of his flock by wild animals. Yet the reference to the shepherd’s laying down his life is cast in a distinctive Johannine idiom so that the reader of the Gospel cannot help hearing in Jesus’ words an allusion to his own death (see 10:15, 17-18; 13:37-38; 15:13; 1 John 3:16). Verses 15 and 17-18 will make those associations with the death of Jesus explicit, but at this point Jesus stays within the metaphor of shepherding. He works to build the interpretive frame of reference before he turns more directly to his own life and death.

The image of the hired hand in vv.12-13 has many echoes of the image of the bad shepherd in Ezekiel 34:5-6, 8-10. It also recalls descriptions of the bad shepherd in Jer 23:1-3 and Zech 11:15, 17. The common denominator in these OT portraits of the bad shepherd and the picture of the hired hand is the shepherd’s primary concern for his own well-being at the expense of the flock’s well-being. In each of these portraits, the flock is scattered and devoured by animals as a result of the shepherd’s neglect. This picture of the hired shepherd’s lack of concern for the sheep (v.13) stands in marked contrast to the picture of the good shepherd, who cares for the sheep to the point of laying down his life for them.

Image credit: Frank Merino, Pexels, image 7360551

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