In the world of the Bible, sheep and shepherds were common sights, so it was not unusual for ancient Near Eastern kings and rulers to adopt the image and title of shepherd. That was natural and even irresistible, since shepherds care for their flocks, provide leadership and direction for them and protect them from hostile forces. Today’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 23, the most famous and beloved psalm in the Bible, applies the shepherd imagery to God: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” This psalm has brought confidence and hope to fearful and suffering people for thousands of years. Many of us recite it when we find ourselves in trouble or crisis or pain. It depicts God as a shepherd—that is, a nurturer, leader and protector.
Few kings in ancient Israel measured up to their role as shepherds for God’s people. The prophets were especially strong in their criticisms of Israel’s rulers and often turned the shepherd imagery against them. Thus on the eve of Jerusalem’s destruction in the early sixth century B.C., Jeremiah indicts the leaders of his people and proclaims, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” Nevertheless, Jeremiah could look beyond the bad leaders of his own day to the appearance of a true shepherd-king, that is, a wise and righteous leader who would drive away fear from God’s people.
In today’s passage from Mark 6, Jesus interrupts his vacation plans in response to what he perceived as the needs of God’s people. Jesus the Son of David (who was a shepherd himself) is the antithesis of the evil shepherds who misled God’s people. He is the fulfillment of the prophet’s hope that God would raise up the ideal shepherd for his people.
In his ministry, according to Mark, Jesus takes on the shepherd’s tasks of nurturing, leading and protecting God’s people. In the next episode in Mark’s narrative, Jesus supplies food for 5,000 people. During the long journey from northern Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus offers direction and guidance for all who wish to follow him. And in his passion and death Jesus the shepherd, in a startling reversal, takes on the role of God’s Servant, who is led to death like a lamb to the slaughter (see Isaiah 53). Thus by his sacrificial death Jesus opens up a new and better relationship with God not only for Israel but for all the peoples of the world. Through his wise teaching, compassionate healing and sacrificial suffering, Jesus shows what a good shepherd is and does.
The ministry of Jesus the good shepherd does not end with his death on the cross. In fact, through his death and resurrection Jesus continues to nurture, direct and protect God’s people. Today’s reading from Ephesians 2 adds to the list of blessings that derive from the paschal mystery: peace and unity between Jews and Gentiles, reconciliation with God and access to God through the Holy Spirit. Jesus never stops being the good shepherd.