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The good shepherd

Gospel Reading: Jn 10:11-18
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”

Chapter 10 of John presents the figure and symbolism of the poimen, Greek for “shepherd.” What would this image evoke among listeners of Jesus or the readers of the Gospel at the time of the evangelist? Those familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would be reminded of the leading figures in Israel who had been shepherds, like Moses and David. Those educated in Greek classics would know poimen as a metaphor for leaders like King Agamemnon, and that the art of governing people was often compared to the art of shepherding a flock.

In some parts of the Greco-Roman world, the image of the shepherd would awaken nostalgia for the idyllic life of a shepherd who would lie at ease while playing country songs in his pipe. For others, including the Jews, shepherds would arouse suspicion, since they were perceived as unscrupulous characters who pastured their flock on other people’s land and pilfered wool, milk, and kids from the flock. So, depending on the reader’s background, the image might attract or repel, or convey a sense of peace or uneasiness.

The Gospel appropriates and transforms the associations readers may bring to the image. Chapter 10 of John softens the suspicion leveled at the shepherds by acknowledging that though shepherds who came before Jesus were thieves and robbers (v 8), Jesus himself is the good shepherd. The title “good” does not recall an idyllic landscape but reverberates with the cry of a wolf, and Jesus is presented as a shepherd who seeks the welfare of the sheep and risks his life for them.

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