In 4 Ezra 5:18, a Jewish apocalyptic text of the first century A.D., Ezra is asked by “Phaltiel, a chief of the people” whether he knows “that Israel has been entrusted to you in the land of their exile? Rise therefore and eat some bread, and do not forsake us, like a shepherd who leaves the flock in the power of savage wolves.” The image is similar to that found in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
In Let the Little Children Come to Me, Cornelia Horn and I wrote that “the account of the Good Shepherd in John 10 offers a theological image of Jesus’ love for his people, but its relevance as a metaphor for Jesus’ love derives from the ability to connect the image to everyday instances taken from life. Jesus is not a ‘hired worker’ (misthōtos), but rather someone who cares for the sheep, who will lay down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11-15). What, in contrast, will the hired worker do when the wolf comes? He (or she) will run” (pg. 178).
But the hired hands also function quite clearly on a metaphoric level, which Jesus draws out explicitly. If he is the Good Shepherd, who are the hired hands? They are synonymous, as in 4 Ezra, with Jewish religious authorities who do not care for the sheep as a good shepherd. Based in an actual agricultural image, which ordinary people knew intimately, the condemnation of these hired hands is grounded in day-to-day life.
Jesus cares for the people, the sheep, because they are his sheep and will protect them. This much is clear, yet the extension of the image seems bizarre, when Jesus says, “And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Are the sheep worth it? Are the sheep worth dying for? And if the shepherd dies for his sheep, who will protect them? This image shines a light on the absurdity of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. For this sacrifice makes sense only if through it the flock will be better protected.
And this is the case as Jesus speaks of his death, which will lead to bringing in “other sheep that do not belong to this fold…. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus does speak of laying down his life, but it is “in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” At first blush, dying for the sheep seems to run counter to the goal of caring for the sheep, but it is the reason for the flock’s flourishing today all over the world.
The results are seen when the “rulers of the people and elders” question Peter as to how a lame man was healed; he answers that his restoration to wholeness was “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
Not only has the Good Shepherd saved the sheep through giving his life up for them, he has emboldened the flock itself, no longer to be sheep, but “that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We have been saved to become children, but our final goal, which we cannot yet fully imagine, is to become like the Good Shepherd.