Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2 ESV).
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is your favorite scripture passage?
One of the most beloved scripture passages begins: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:1-2). Another favorite passage is Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7).
We love stories about good shepherds precisely because we have lots more experience with bad ones. Just think about the current federal government shutdown (2013). Bad shepherds were also the norm in Jesus’ time.
Jesus’ story of the good shepherd pictures three elements: a door, a shepherd, and sheep (John 10:1-6).
The door image here is of a sheep pen with a single entrance gate or door where the sheep belonging to an entire village might be kept at night. The gatekeeper might be a local teenager (v 3).
A good shepherd enters by the door (v 2). Thieves might try to sneak over the fence but the shepherd enters by the front door (v 1). The good shepherd also loves the sheep and they love him. Jesus says: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (vv 14-15). Hired shepherds lack this love and run away when wolves attack the sheep (vv 12-13).
Sheep scare easily (v 5). For this reason, Middle Eastern shepherds talk, sing, and play music for their sheep to calm them down and to lead them. Consequently, the sheep do not need to be sorted in the morning—the shepherd just calls their sheep and they come (v 4).
The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.
The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; v 22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies—a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).
We are not to despair being a sheep living in a world of bad shepherds. Jesus says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (vv 27-28).
Our obligation is to follow the good shepherd; our reward is eternal life.