As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
For one, shepherds represented to him poverty, his poverty, which we learn from the Gospel according to Luke.[iv]As required by the Law, when the infant Jesus was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, his mother, Mary, was required to present as an offering a one-year old lamb, and a pigeon, and a turtle dove. That is, unless she could not afford the lamb. And she could not. Luke reports she claimed a Levitical provision made for the poor. Instead of offering a lamb, which she and Joseph could not afford, she offered two pigeons and two turtledoves.[v] Mind you, this is one brief scene in the Gospel account; however it speaks volumes. Mary and Joseph would be carrying the memory of the angels’ announcement to Mary of the child she would bear, and of Jesus’ miraculous birth, and of his messianic destiny. But how can this be? They were so poor.
And Jesus was like a special needs child. He was precocious and stood out; however he did not get on with his life. As a normal teenager, Jesus should have gotten married. That was the cultural expectation. And he should have gotten a job, pursued a vocation, but there’s no record of that, either. The Gospel account is absolutely silent about what happened to Jesus between his presence at the Temple at age twelve and when he appears before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the River Jordan. That’s 18 years of silence in his adolescence and his twenties. Jesus would have known the prophecies about the long-awaited Messiah. And he would have heard the disturbing reports about his own miraculous birth destiny. Was it miraculous, or was it just made up? I’m sure he said to himself these same words his mother had said many years earlier: “How can this be?”[vi]
From his youngest years, Jesus looked to God as his shepherd. I think he prayed Psalm 23 some days out of sheer desperation – “The Lord is my shepherd” – because Jesus was like a lost sheep, thirsty, hungry, so terribly vulnerable and alone. Many years later, before the Roman court, Jesus would be mocked and scourged. But that was not the first time. I’m sure this torture began for Jesus as a child and adolescent, when he was teased and taunted. From his earliest years, Jesus knew his own need for God to be his shepherd. For Jesus, Psalm 23 would have given words to his own deepest needs for protection and provision: “For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.” From his youngest years, Jesus knew his need for God to be his shepherd.
Another informing influence upon Jesus, with his ultimately claiming his identity as “the good shepherd,” was in the convoluted reputation of shepherds. On the one hand, shepherds were needed. Their sheep were a mainstay for commerce, clothing, table fare, and Temple sacrifice. On the other hand, shepherds were not always a reputable lot. In Jesus’ day, there was a whole series of professions and trades which were suspect, and degrading, and not respected socially.”[vii] Shepherds were reputed to be among the worst. Shepherds were continually being accused of being dishonest and thieving. Shepherds had a reputation for leading their flocks onto other people’s land and for stealing other people’s sheep.[viii] In the Jewish Midrash, from a commentary on Psalm 23, we read, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd . . . whose pursuits are mean and inglorious.”[ix] Shepherds were needed and revered, and they were despised and rejected. And some of this derision also came, ironically, because shepherds could not leave their flocks, by day or night, to journey to the Temple to make sacrifice. They had the lambs for sacrifice, obviously, but they did not have the time.
In the fullness of time, it happened. Something merged in Jesus’ own sense of identity and calling. I imagine Jesus in the desert, alone, alone so much of the time and for years, and it began dawning on him that not only did he identify with sheep, he also identified with their need of a good shepherd. And this was he. And I think this realization incorporated everything that had made up his life experience: the poverty of his family of origin, the cruel taunts and teasing he would have experienced growing up because of such bazaar, unbelievable stories told about his birth and destiny, about those eighteen “silent years” when he spent time alone and lost. The aridity of the Judean desert must have been a great place of comfort and also the setting for his revelation, who he was to be and how. However it was he came into the clearing, knowing he was to be “the good shepherd,” identifying with the God whom he called whom he called Father” and with whom he claimed a oneness, he never forgot from where he had come. He had been “despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity…”[x] He had such tender loving mercy, such compassion, for those who were taunted, rejected, lost, last, and lowly because he had empathy for them. Jesus stayed on speaking terms with from where he had come, and that opened his heart for everyone.
The good news about Jesus’ ultimately claiming his identity as our good shepherd, is the assurance that Jesus will seek us out and find us when we are like a lost sheep. Lost sheep do not find themselves; they are found. Jesus will find us – will find you – when you are lost. He will know where to look because he’s been there. You can get lost in childhood and adolescence. You can get lost in a midlife crisis. You can get lost in old age. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us, “All we are like sheep,” and we have in Jesus, our good shepherd, his power, and provision, and protection.[xi] Jesus incarnates – that is, makes real to us – the promise that he prayed, that we pray, in Psalm 23: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”
[i] Psalm 23:1.
[ii] Psalm 78:52.
[iii] 1 Samuel 16:19; Ezekiel 34:23.
[iv] Luke 2:21-24.
[v] Leviticus 12:6-8.
[vi] Luke 1:34-38.
[vii]Insight drawn from Chapter XIV, “Despised Trades and Jewish Slaves,” in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, by Joachim Jeremias; p. 303.
[viii]Jeremias, p. 305.
[ix]Jeremias, p. 311.
[x] Isaiah 53:3.
[xi] Isaiah 53:6.
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