The Good Shepherd

I may have mentioned to you a few times that I’ve always been a big fan of the Robin Hood stories. As many of you will know, Robin Hood is a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the late twelfth century in England, during the time of the Crusades. King Richard the Lion Heart was away leading a crusading army, and his brother Prince John was ruling the kingdom on his behalf. In the most popular versions of the Robin Hood stories, Prince John is seen as a self-serving tyrant who is taxing the people to death. Robin and his band of merrie men live in the Nottingham area and often confront Prince John’s local representative, the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin and his men have been driven into the outlaw life, and they spend their time robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, in anticipation of the day when King Richard will return, do away with the corruption in the land, and put everything to rights again.

So, at least, goes the legend. However, historians know that this is a very romantic view of King Richard the Lionheart; he actually seems to have cared very little for the people of England, except as a tax base to support his very expensive foreign crusades. He was king for ten years but spent only a few months of that time in England; the rest of it was spent in the Holy Land or in journeys there and back, including a time when he was kept prisoner in France and his people were taxed to raise an enormous ransom to set him free. If the Robin Hood stories are true and the people were putting their hope in Richard to put things to rights in England, then they were disappointed; it turned out that it was in Richard’s name that Prince John and the Sheriff were doing all this taxing in the first place! Like many political leaders, Richard turned out to be a disappointment – a self-serving adventurer who did not have the true welfare of his people at heart.

Now, you might ask, what does the story of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart have to do with John chapter 10 and the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Here’s your answer: in biblical times the image of the shepherd was predominantly a royal image; the kings and leaders of ancient Israel were thought of as shepherds of God’s people. This idea was associated from ancient times with king David, who in his youth had been a shepherd boy, and who God chose to be the ‘shepherd’ of his people Israel. This idea is expressed at the end of Psalm 78 in these words:

‘(God) chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).

Later on, in Ezekiel chapter 34, the prophet delivers a thundering judgement against the corrupt kings of Israel:

‘Thus says the LORD God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals’ (34:2b-5).

This is the background to what Jesus has to say in John chapter 10. To claim to be ‘the Good Shepherd’ – not just ‘a’ good shepherd but ‘the’ Good Shepherd – is to claim to be a better king than the self-serving political and religious leaders who, as Ezekiel had said, were exploiting the people of God instead of caring for them. Jesus was making a political claim here: this is a claim to be the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who would care for the people of God as their great king David had cared for them. And yet, as he always does, Jesus subtly changes the definition of kingship here, so that it becomes more an issue of what we have come to call ‘pastoral care’ – ‘pastor’ is the Latin word for ‘shepherd’ – than political power.

Read the rest here.

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