The depiction of God as a shepherd goes back to Genesis. When Jacob (or Israel) was on his deathbed, he blessed two of his sons in the name of “the God in whose presence my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day” (Gn 48:15).
In his final testament, Jacob described God as “the shepherd, the rock of Israel” (Gn 49:24). The prophets also referred to God as a shepherd, as when Isaiah declared, “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care” (Is 40:11).
Psalm 23, written by King David, is the best-known depiction in the Jewish scriptures of God as the shepherd who provides physical nourishment, spiritual refreshment and continual guidance and protection, concluding: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for endless days” (Ps 23:6).
All of these references form the background to today’s Gospel, which recounts Christ’s “good shepherd” discourse, given shortly after he had healed the blind man (cf. Jn 9). That miracle had further escalated tensions between Jesus and the Pharisees (cf. Jn 8:59; 10:31-39).
Thus, Jesus’ words about shepherding were uttered in the middle of deadly discord. They are, in a real way, an expansion on Psalm 23 and David’s statement: “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side.” What is the source of conflict? The very person and mission of Jesus, as St. John points out in his prologue: “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11). The religious leaders recognized that Jesus had been making exclusive, astonishing claims, as when he said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am” (Jn 8:58).
In using the imagery of the sheep and shepherd, Jesus continued to assert his uniqueness, not only by describing himself as the “good shepherd” (Jn 10:11) and thus highlighting the bad shepherding of the Pharisees and scribes, but also by declaring, “I am the gate for the sheep. ... Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” There is little doubt that Jesus had in mind the scathing rebuke uttered by the prophet Ezekiel against the bad and corrupt shepherds of Israel (Ez 34).
Jesus is the only way to salvation, the Lord of life. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he stated at the Last Supper, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). And the way to the Father is through the cross; it comes through humility, suffering and even death. The head apostle, Peter, learned that lesson the hard way, and then he proclaimed it with fearless conviction on Pentecost: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
Just as Jesus warned of thieves and robbers, Peter warned, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Along similar lines, the first pope, in his first epistle, reminded his readers that they had once “gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Pt 2:25). Peter knew what it was like to go astray; he also knew of the salvation and restoration offered by the shepherd (cf. Jn 21:15-19).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.