For several days last week the gospel readings in the lectionary were the good shepherd passages from John 10. By coincidence, I had just pulled off the shelf my copy of Kenneth Bailey’s new The Good Shepherd, subtitled “A thousand year journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament”. Bailey, now well on in years (around 85), has written numerous books drawing on both his deep knowledge of Scripture and his rich insights from Middle Eastern life, distilled over a life spent mostly in the Middle East – first as a child of American missionaries, and then as a missionary and teacher himself. His perspectives on the cultural references hearers of the parables would have taken for granted are in Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes are of particular value.
The Good Shepherd is not Bailey’s best book, but it is still full of useful angles on many of the shepherd references in the Bible, perhaps especially on Psalm 23. It had never occurred to me that in Palestine green pastures might not be common – Bailey reckons a sheep would typically only have green pastures three months of the year – and I hadn’t known that sheep won’t willingly drink from other than “still waters”. I also hadn’t known – all this despite Canterbury origins – that when flocks are mixed up together, sheep really will recognise and respond to the call of their own shepherd. Nothing of great profundity in its own right, but a deeper sense of what a good shepherd is, and does. And of what it might mean to affirm that Yahweh is my shepherd.
The imagery of God, and then Jesus. as shepherd (good shepherd) appears quite often in Scripture. In Ezekiel, and later in 1 Peter, it become an image for human leaders too (the roots of the word “pastor”), who can be good shepherds or negligent, dangerous and deceptive one. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the imagery about himself, in a society where shepherds were common – and those who were hired hands were low in the social pecking order. Jesus’ imagery is vivid: the good shepherd is not some idle village lad, but one who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Real first century Palestinian shepherds saw off wolves, lions, and thieves. Jesus’ words, recorded by John, offer reassurance to hearers and readers down through the ages.
In 1 Peter, the challenge comes to those who lead God’s church – then and now:
Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight not under compulsion but willingly as God would have you do it…..be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
Being a shepherd is not just picturesque imagery; it is something real and dangerous. It cost God, Father and Son; it costs those who have faithfully led the church through the centuries. And it will still cost today, in small ways often, and sometimes in great. But it is deep and serious responsibility, to walk in the steps of the Good Shepherd.
Somewhat to my surprise, Bailey didn’t touch on one of the most poignant examples of the shepherd imagery, that in Isaiah 40. Two verses present very different aspects of God:
See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
His reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
And carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
An image of staggering beauty, captured by Handel in Messiah and in verse 3 of this, my favourite musical setting of Psalm 23.