Like a shepherd he leads his flock—these words open a well-known hymn. But what do they mean?
Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, when the church highlights the need for authentic leaders.
The sheep and shepherd image for church is the most common image used in the New Testament appearing in the passages where Jesus speaks about the authority of the leaders.
In many ways it is the most challenging image to appreciate today for three main reasons:
- We think the image is very masculine. However, in Old Testament times there were women shepherds. For example, in Genesis we read that Rachel looked after sheep (29:6) as does the bride in the Song of Solomon (1:8). Shepherding was also a communal task usually carried out by families (eg, 1 Samuel 16:11) and while there was one chief shepherd there were co-shepherds (1 Samuel 17:20).
- We don’t actually like to think of ourselves as sheep. Therefore a leader must take care to honour the intelligence and experience of the community and should not do for the community what the community can do for itself. People should not be conditioned by the shepherd to behave like sheep.
- The shepherd is the one with power over the sheep. But, in today’s gospel (John 10:11-18) Jesus makes an extraordinary claim: as the good shepherd he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep! This radical statement really upends the understanding of leadership so strongly condemned by the Old Testament prophets (eg, Ezek 34:1-10; Jer 23:1-4). Jesus contrasts his own behaviour as the good shepherd with that of others put in charge who run away at the first sign of trouble (Jer 23:7-13). They don’t really care about the sheep. Jesus cares very deeply. He knows them, he is intimately related to them. This relationship is based on the relationship he has with his father which he spoke about in yesterday’s gospel (Jn 14:7-14). ‘If you know me, you will know my father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him (v 7). Furthermore, in the Book of Revelation the shepherd himself is a sheep, the Lamb of God! This image provides a strong reminder of the incarnation: the one who shepherds has first fully identified with us by becoming one with us.
Paul pretty quickly understood the enormity of this self-emptying and spelled it out in the magnificent hymn we heard on Palm Sunday (Phil 2: 6-11). So when Jesus handed over to Peter (Jn 21:15-18) the responsibility and authority to shepherd (to feed and look after the flock) he did so against the requirement of the shepherd to, firstly, be a sheep and, secondly, to be prepared to lay down his life.
However, in a country with 40 million sheep, four million people, and countless sheep jokes, the biblical shepherd imagery is always highly problematic. The farmer on horseback/farm bike with the dogs leads the huge flock from behind. Perhaps this is suggestive of lay leadership: the sheep with a communal mind setting the pace and leading the way down from the high country.
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