The complexity of the ‘good shepherd’ metaphor
In Scripture, sometimes the blame for the breakdown of a community falls upon the flock rather than the shepherd. “For you have gone astray like sheep,” one reads in today’s second reading (1 Pt 2:25). The people of God, for instance, are often depicted as obtuse with ample displays of mob mentality. Recall the desert episodes throughout Exodus in which the Israelites repeatedly complain against their shepherd Moses or the crowds in the Gospels excited for the death of Jesus.
For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1 Pt 2:25)
What can you do to help your local shepherd lead?
How can your local shepherd help you to better follow?
Where can you find your role as a shepherd for your community?
In this Sunday’s Gospel, by contrast, one finds the shepherd of the flock under the spotlight. Reading the text, however, lends itself to confusion. This passage is the result of multiple stages of editing as, over time, the fourth Gospel took its final form. Each of those stages reflects new pastoral concerns within the growing church. The resulting “shepherd” metaphor is therefore quite complex. It includes the concepts of “gate,” “gatekeeper,” and “sheepfold” and responds to real needs and potential divisions in the early church.
Today’s passage from John is the only parable-like section in this Gospel. Parables are common in the other three Gospels, but not in John. It is not clear whether the central metaphor is the “gate” of the sheepfold or the “shepherd” of the flock: “Amen, amen, I say to you whoever does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Jn 10:1-2). In fact, the central image could also be the gatekeeper, a metaphor that itself is distinct from the gate and the shepherd, “The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice” (Jn 10:3). Jesus speaks to the Pharisees who ought to shepherd the people, but they do not understand what he is trying to say.
Intimacy, familiarity and affection all form the character of the true shepherd.
To clarify their confusion Jesus speaks directly, “I am the gate for the sheep” (Jn 10:7, 9). If one continues beyond today’s Gospel, the passage reads, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). The shift of imagery from “gate” or “gatekeeper” to the “good shepherd” highlights the Gospel of John’s theological plasticity for the person of Christ. Jesus is all three: the gate, the gatekeeper and the shepherd of the flock. This shaping and reshaping of metaphors was helpful for a community trying to anchor itself in the complex mystery of Christ, especially when faced with real division (see Jn 10:19).
Intimacy, familiarity and affection all form the character of the true shepherd. The shepherd must know each member of the flock by name. The true shepherd calls out and the sheep know the voice. The shepherd walks ahead of the flock to a place that is lifegiving. In the face of harm, today’s psalm captures the comfort of being led by a true shepherd, “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side” (Ps 23:4).
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tries to convince the Pharisees that their style of leadership is ineffective. In his eyes, they were like shepherds who failed to enter through the true gate; the sheep would not recognize their summons. Just so today, every person within the church has a responsibility to exercise authentic leadership in accord with their role. The passage reveals the keys to authenticity: Know your flock by name and lay down your life for them and they will follow. If results fall flat, then perhaps the shepherd has become a stranger, “They will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:5). Instead, discern the location of the true gate and call with the voice of the Good Shepherd.