“I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11).
Not too long ago I read something that bothered me. I’m not sure it should have – but it did.
The author, a highly regarded pastor-teacher, is someone whom I greatly respect. I listen often to his podcast. So when he said in an interview that the word “shepherd” was irrelevant, he got my attention. Here’s the quote, admittedly removed from context:
“That word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to . . . I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” (Leadership Journal, May 28, 2007).
Ok . . . I think I get that. I claim little to no experience with shepherds or flocks of livestock of any kind. In my first church in Oklahoma I knew that several of my members owned cows, but I never actually had interaction with their cattle. Shepherds are not easily found in metro-Atlanta. But while I acknowledge the truth of what this fellow-pastor says, I just can’t reach his conclusion. Bottom line: I think he’s wrong.
For one thing, his position elevates (his) personal experience to an unworthy height while it sells people short. Meaningful knowledge cannot be tethered to what I myself have seen and done. And it is also possible that intelligent people are capable of comprehending the meaning of a metaphor that is foreign to their own time and culture.
Jesus didn’t use the word “shepherd” because there was one in a field that he could see and point to. Jesus used “shepherd” because he had read Isaiah and the Psalms. The concept came to him from Israel’s history, not a Judean hillside.
But beyond that there is this practical matter. If you jettison the biblical image of a “shepherd” what will you use in its place? Is there anything that we can see or identify that offers an adequate substitute for the Biblical image? What speaks most powerfully to the deepest needs of our life?
The Lord is . . . my adviser? We need far more than advice. The Lord is . . . my boss or CEO? That hardly stirs our affections. The Lord is my . . . coach? That might get at what we need. Personal coaching is big these days. The Lord is my . . . counselor? Maybe – but good counselors pay close attention to boundaries. The shepherd risks his life the sheep. Counselor is close, but not quite there.
Maybe what we need is exactly what Jesus said he was in John 10:11. We need a shepherd.
How do you see it? Why does it matter that Jesus is a “good shepherd?” Could he meet you in the details of your life or at your point of deepest need as something else?
Lord Jesus, you called yourself a good shepherd. While the image is strange to us, we know you in what you do with us – the way you guide us and seek us out when lost and lead us to what will sustain us and give us life. We will not fight over words. We only seek to follow you as you do your work among us by your Holy Spirit. Do that work today, we pray. Amen.