Historical Cultural Context
An Honorable Shepherd
In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins by describing a scenario concerning raising sheep in first-century Palestine. Then he applies the scenario to himself and his ministry.
Jesus ... carefully spells out the characteristics of an honorable shepherd.
(1) He enters by the door instead of sneaking in some other way.
(2) The gatekeeper recognizes him as the genuine shepherd of this flock and permits him to enter. Others would be barred.
Recalling the large, extended nature of the Middle Eastern family, even the gatekeeper role makes sense. Each family had its own flock, but pasturing their flocks together required a common pen where they might be kept. One kinsperson who knew all the shepherds was designated gatekeeper.
(3) He leads the sheep in and out.
This characteristic is more difficult to appreciate. People who raise sheep insist that shepherds do not lead sheep. They rather walk behind and urge them forward thus being able to keep an eye out for wayward stragglers.
However, in the Middle East, some shepherds walk before the sheep and call them with a peculiar cry. It is this cry rather than simply voice recognition that guides the sheep.
Sheep in general are not very powerful, hence unable to defend themselves effectively. Moreover, they are not very good at recognizing localities, which explains why they can so easily go astray. When lost, the sheep panics. It falls to the ground and bleats loudly in hopes that it will attract the shepherd.
All this information and imagery is familiar and clear to the disciples, but they fail to grasp the point Jesus wants to make. Who is the honorable person and who is the thief, bandit, and stranger? He must explain it to them.
At the implicit level, Jesus seems to be attacking the Jerusalem priests and the Pharisees. Leading sheep in and out echoes the symbolic description of Joshua in Num 27:16-17.
Moses is urged to “appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”
The leaders of Jesus’ time are not doing this (see Mk 6:34).
At the explicit level, Jesus identifies himself as the gate. This image, however, is interpreted in two senses. In verse 8, Jesus notes that any shepherd who approaches the sheep other than through him (the gate) is a thief and bandit.
In verses 9-10, Jesus is the gate through which the sheep must pass to gain life, salvation. This interpretation fits the parable in verses l-3a rather clumsily; it must have been torn from a different setting (Ps 118:20; see Jn 14:6).
To find pasture is to find life. Sheep who seek pasture through Jesus find life, life in abundance (Jn 14:10). The thief can offer only theft, destruction, and death. Such a shepherd contrasts starkly with Jesus the gate and the noble shepherd, the figure to which Jesus turns attention in the subsequent section.
If contemporary American believers can see beyond the sheep imagery to the question of leadership in the Christian community, today’s few verses should stimulate healthy reflection.
Are contemporary leaders noble guides or more like thieves, bandits, and strangers?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University