This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the Gospel reading John 10.11-18, though it also refers to Psalm 23 and very briefly Acts 4.5-12. The images used below have been reproduced under fair use criteria for educational purposes.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
Christ as the Shepherd is an image or symbol that is embedded deeply and widely within the New Testament. It is also probably the earliest way that Christ was represented in Christian art – predating the visual portrayal of him on a crucifix. There are statues and frescoes of a figure who probably represents Christ, dressed as a young man, and carrying a sheep on his shoulder, which date back to the 3rd century AD. We have used two examples, one above and one below as some of the illustrations for this week. In the years when persecution of Christians was still rife – to depict Christ in this way was not as risky as using the overt Christian symbol of a cross. Indeed there was an ambiguity to the image, because it was not dissimilar to the way that Greek gods, especially Hermes, could be portrayed.Within the New Testament the image of Christ as ‘shepherd’ is either stated, or implied, in all four Gospels, in the Letter to the Hebrews, I Peter, and the Book of Revelation. It is interesting that it does not figure in Paul’s letters; perhaps it is a telling example that Paul’s own social world was urban rather than rural. The images and metaphors that Paul used were rather drawn from Graeco-Roman city culture.
I am particularly fascinated by the use of the image in Revelation 7.17, in which Christ is described both as Shepherd and as Lamb. Such use of ‘paradox’ would later widely be drawn on, especially in the Syriac Christian tradition, for example, ‘Blessed to the Shepherd Who became a Lamb for our reconciliation!’ (St Ephraem the Syrian). A careful read of Revelation 7.17 suggests that it alludes to the imagery of the beloved Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. It is probably the only direct allusion to Psalm 23 in the New Testament itself – although understandably for most of Christian history this psalm has often been drawn on to explore what it may mean to call Christ, or God, one’s shepherd.
There are of course many other Old Testament resonances and allusions to the shepherd motif – the most extensive reflection is found in Ezekiel 34.1-24 which circles round to explore the motif of the worthless shepherds, the political and religious leaders that had neglected the welfare of the people, and contrasts this with both the role of David as shepherd (Ezekiel 34.23) and the fact that God himself would shepherd his people (Ezekiel 34.11ff). It is, I feel, highly likely that Ezekiel’s verses were in the mind’s eye of the Gospel writer as he explored the image of Christ both a ‘door’ to the sheepfold, and then as shepherd (John 10). Part of this chapter is selected by the lectionary for use on Easter 4 in each lectionary year – this year it is John 10.11-18. Somehow the fact that Ezekiel can refer both to God and to David as being ‘shepherd’ of the people enables the way that John ‘slides’ into identifying Jesus both with the Messiah,(John 10.24) and also with God himself (John 10.30).
It is interesting, and probably significant, that this discussion appears to be taking place in the Temple during the season of Hanukkah. Hanukkah commemorates the reconsecration of the Temple at the times of the Maccabees, (c.164 BC) after its desecration by the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. However along with the restoration of the Temple the events at that time led to the family of Judas Maccabeus gradually assuming both political and religious control – including taking over the Highpriestly role. We know that caused a great deal of controversy – it is what led to the founding of the religious community at Qumran, who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which make their implacable hostility to the current religious leadership in Jerusalem, very clear. So there may be a strong hint in our Gospel reading that the current religious leadership in the Temple are to be equated with the ‘hirelings’ of whom Jesus speaks.
There are two points that I want to note in relation to this passage. One short, one rather longer.
The short one. Jesus describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’. But the word used in Greek for ‘good’ is not agathos (the usual word for ‘good’). It is the adjective kalos, which has a wider sense and can also mean ‘beautiful’. Earlier in the Gospel when Jesus turns the water into wine, and those who drink it comment, ‘You have kept the good wine up till now!’ it is a form of kalos rather than agathos that is also used at this point. What does it mean that Jesus describes his role as that of ‘beautiful’ shepherd?
The longer issue, which probably reflects my own particular interests and pre-occupations. I have taught biblical studies in universities and other tertiary contexts. I have also worked professionally in the field of interreligious dialogue for most of the last 20 years. I am therefore, not surprisingly, deeply interested in what insights our Scriptures can offer in relation to interreligious engagement by Christians such as myself, perhaps particularly taking account of the wisdom of Christians from parts of the non-western world.
In John 10.16 Jesus speaks of having, ‘Other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’ What I find fascinating is the way that this comment is enclosed by two references to Jesus ‘laying down his life’ for his sheep (John 10.15, 17), one immediately before, and one immediately after. Given the literary conventions of the New Testament period this suggests to me that we are intended to ‘read’ the comment about ‘one flock, one shepherd’ in the light of Jesus laying down his life. How are the two connected? I think we are intended to link these verses with the incident that will shortly take place in John 12.20-36 when the arrival of some ‘Greeks’ who want to meet Jesus somehow seems to propel him into his passion. I think it is something like this: that the uniting of people into ‘one’ requires the breaking down of the walls and barriers, between ethnicities, languages and even potentially religions. And on the whole people feel more secure with walls, and they resent those, like Jesus, who insisted on challenging them. So the good shepherd finds himself ‘laying down his life-force’ (literal translation) to enable this unity that breaches barriers.
Now I cannot pretend that this passage in the Gospel of John offers us a fully fledged theology for interreligious relations. Far from it, and in fact the understanding of ‘religion’ in New Testament times was not exactly what we mean by the word today. However I do think that it is possible to read these verses as allowing for at least an ‘inclusivist’ attitude to other faiths, and a willingness to explore links and connections. It is intriguing that the representation of Christ as Good Shepherd is a particularly popular motif among Christians from Asia who live as minorities among other religious traditions. Some examples of this Asian Christian art have been incorporated into the blog. You can see more fascinating illustrations at
Global Christian Worship – ‘Jesus as Good Shepherd’ in Asian Art (tumblr.com)
However the picture that I want to finish with I find extraordinary and fascinating. I had not been aware of it until I began to prepare this blog. It is a carved ivory from Goa dating from about 1700 which shows the Christ Child as the Bom Pastor (Good Shepherd). Apparently from 1600AD onwards this form of depiction of the Good Shepherd was very popular, with many similar examples exported to Christians in Europe, presumably particularly Portugal. At the top of the carving which represents a sacred mountain is the Christchild dressed in wool as a shepherd and holding a sheep. He is making a gesture of peace with his hand, and is shown in a way that is deliberately reminiscent of both Krishna and the Buddha. Below him the water of life flows, and there are other sheep under his care. And at the bottom of the ‘mountain’ in a sacred cave Mary Magdalene is studying scripture. So the care of the Good Shepherd extends to all people and all places. For more on this listen to:
Christ Child as the “Bom Pastor,” or Good Shepherd by The Met (soundcloud.com)