This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. Israel’s leaders were often regarded as shepherds, and even though God was always their principal shepherd, responsible human agents were necessary so that Israel would not be as “sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:16, 17); and significantly, a charismatic element is said to have rested on such leaders (Num 27:16–21; cf. Isa 11:1–9; 44:28–45:1). God is said to have led the flock Israel through the wilderness by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Ps 77:21; Isa 63:11). Although no Israelite king is ever directly called by the title “shepherd,” it is implied, since David as prince feeds, or shepherds, Israel (2 Sam 5:2), and when Micah predicted the death of Ahab and Israel’s defeat, he said the scattered army would be “as sheep which have no shepherd” (1 Kgs 22:17; 2 Chr 18:16; cf. Num 27:16, 17).

John the Evangelist has specifically identified the mission and death of Jesus with his role as a shepherd by using ideas which look back to the Davidic shepherd of Ezek 34:11–16, 23–24, and the smitten shepherd of Zech 13:7 was also in view (cf. Mark 14:27). Since Zechariah 9–14 was especially significant for the early disciples and for their interpretation and understanding of Jesus’ eschatological program, the statement, “Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be scattered,” and the entire dying shepherd passage (Zech 11:4–14; cf. Matt 27:9), formed a core around which their savior’s life and death might be interpreted. The context in Zechariah had a pronounced emotional effect on the disciples when they saw their leader arrested and the apostles scattered like helpless sheep. Both Ezekiel 34 and Zechariah 9–13 were especially productive as the source for much reflection on the role of the shepherd in the gospels.

At v.11, the focus shifts to Jesus’ self-revelation as the good shepherd. The identification of Jesus as the shepherd was implicit in the figure of speech in vv.1-5, but it is made explicit for the first time here. As before, the positive image of the good shepherd (vv.11, 14-16) is contrasted with a negative image, that of the hired hand (vv.12-13).

The “I am” saying of v.11a is explained exclusively in metaphorical language in vv.11b-13. That is, after the initial use of a first-person singular pronoun, Jesus never refers to himself directly again. Instead, he draws on images derived from the OT to explain what he means by “good shepherd.” The adjective “good” (kalos) also has the meaning “model” or “true,” and the reference point for what constitutes a model shepherd is set by the image of God as the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34. According to Ezek 34:11-16, God the good shepherd cares for the sheep, rescuing them from the places to which they have been scattered, feeding them, and tending to the weak, the injured, and the lost. By identifying himself as the good shepherd of Ezekiel 34, Jesus thus identifies himself as fulfilling God’s promises and doing God’s work (cf. 4:34; 17:4).

Image credit: Frank Merino, Pexels, image 7360551

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