A friend offered a simple rationale for pastors: “God gave us pastors because everyone needs a shepherd.” It’s true, we need a shepherd in life since our hearts are wayward, restless, and prone to wander. But that, then, prompts the next question: What kind of shepherd does God provide? The answer, of course, starts and ends with Christ.
A recent Sunday extols Christ’s role as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because, in each year of the liturgical cycle on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel is taken from John 10where Jesus speaks of Himself as “the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” (v.11). The text contrasts Jesus, who sacrificially loves His sheep, and those hired hands who simply look after them, but only insofar as it doesn’t cross their own interests. The most comforting aspect of the passage is that the Good Shepherd knows His sheep and they know Him. There is a mutual bond of familiarity and affection. Jesus will refer to it in another place as love. That love is compared to the deep mutual relationship that exists between the Son and the Father and is brought to bear on us, His sheep, in His sacrificial death:
“Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The Good Shepherd desires that many other sheep should come to identify themselves with Him, namely the Gentiles:
"There are other sheep I have that are not of this [Jewish] fold, and these I have to lead as well" (John 10:16).
The ultimate goal is that "there will be only one flock, and one shepherd,” that the whole world would be united together with its God and Lord. This is the heart of the Kingdom message of the Gospel and the driving eschatological vision of the entire Old Testament.
And it is from the Old Testament that the metaphor of the “shepherd” is drawn into the revelation of God in and through Christ in John 10, but also Luke 15.
Significantly, Luke 15 is not a collection of parables, but a single parable that builds through two initial stories and climaxes in a third, mounting repeating themes to give us a fresh vision of God’s love and rescue in Christ. The anchor to that parable and central thought running through it is found in the shepherd metaphor.
The parabolic string of Luke 15 comes in Jesus’ retort about Him receiving sinners (redeeming) and, worse, eating with them (communing). In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes, they are worthless. Jesus, however, sets to disabuse them about the worth of human life—be it that of a tax collector or sinner. He offers them the perspective of God by revisiting the tension between Israel’s shepherds and God their rightful Shepherd.
"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4).
The answer to His rhetorical question is obvious: Go after it because the sheep has substantial value. Herein lies Jesus’ point—they won’t do it, but God's Good Shepherd will, because that’s what kind of shepherd He is. And so, it is in this juxtaposition that the hard hearts of the Pharisees and scribes are revealed and, more significantly still, the heart of God.
Jesus then reinforces His point in the second of the stories by talking directly about money. Here the connection is stronger and more obvious, but so is the utter lostness and helplessness of the object. What if a woman lost a day’s wages? Would she go after it? Of course she does! And in both cases, not only seeking it with a degree of risk and sacrifice, but rejoicing in its recovery (salvation). Only then does Jesus up the ante by introducing lost people—sinners—into the parable: enter the two lost sons.
They are sheep—one devout (tantamount to a Pharisee or scribe) and the other notoriously wayward (likened to a tax collector or sinner or, as the image of the pigs intimates, a gentile). And they are both lost, with as much ability to recover and restore themselves as a coin vanishing in the dark. When God’s kingdom comes, says Jesus, He seeks to save all, even these sinners, even you Pharisees and, what is more, going so far as to welcome you to commune with Him. Yes, that is the heart of the Father and the Father is made known in the Son—the One who is the Good Shepherd.
Jesus begins His “parable of finding the lost” in three scenes with the concrete picture of the good shepherd and the lost sheep, a recasting of a classic story familiar to His scholarly listeners in what we call the Twenty-third Psalm, but no less in Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Ezekiel 34:1-31. Together these three texts rush forward to what Jesus says in John 10, and descriptively in Luke 15.
While there are many things to say about Psalm 23, central is the idea that the good shepherd causes the wayward sheep (i.e., the psalmist) to repent/return and dwell securely within the Shepherd’s domain. This is depicted in Psalm 23:5-6, where God the Good Shepherd suddenly becomes God, the generous Host, who prepares a meal, anoints my head and overflows my cup. These memorable images are later repeated and altered in Jeremiah 23.
There, in Jeremiah, the prophet opens with sharp criticism of the bad shepherds of Israel (its leaders) who have lost, not merely a sheep or two, but their entire flock. There’s no hope in these failed shepherds. Instead, God promises to appear in person and “bring them back”, not merely to the land but more specifically to God Himself.
Ezekiel 34 dramatically expands Jeremiah’s story. The entire chapter is remarkable and seems to be fully invoked by Jesus in His parabolic response to the Pharisees and scribes. The “shepherds of Israel” (Ezekiel 34:2) are at fault, and God promises to “come”, “seek”, and “rescue” the flock Himself, with judgment falling upon the so-called shepherds of Israel.
In Luke 15, and boldly in John 10, Jesus has returned to the original account of the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23, while drawing heavily from Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34, who record the promise of God who will compensate for the failings of the bad shepherds and come Himself to rescue the sheep by setting up “over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them” (Ezekiel 34:23-24).
Remarkably, Jesus’ version represents only Himself as the Good Shepherd who finds and restores the lost sheep, depicting Himself as the Prince of God’s people, the messianic David, the divine-yet-human Good Shepherd. Jesus collapses the prophesies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel surrounding God and David into one person, Himself. With Psalm 23 in view, too, Jesus brings the story of the shepherd into the revelation of God incarnate purposed to save: “I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ezekiel 34:11) and He does so by laying down His life for us, the flock of God.
What kind of shepherd does God send? He sends you Christ Jesus, the Good Shepherd who, out of love, mercy and justice, seeks you, finds you, and lays down His life for you so that you “may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”