The Lord as shepherd is revealed in a caring and supportive community.
Every year the fourth Sunday of Easter season is the Pastor’s Sunday. (“Pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd.) The Psalm reading is always “The Lord is my shepherd,” and the Gospel reading is always from John 10, the chapter about Jesus as the shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold. (All quotes are from the NIV translation.)
The reading presents the Jesus community, freshly created by the Holy Spirit. The opening verse uses the key words that came to define the Jesus community in the mature hindsight of the Acts of the Apostles. This was the picture of the ideal church as Luke was told about it in later times.
These first believers devoted themselves
- to the didache, the guidance for living given by the apostles;
- to the koinonia, the fellowship and mutual support around the apostles;
- to the klasis tou artou, the breaking of the bread of the Lord’s Supper (a phrase used also at the Emmaus revelation, Luke 24:35); and
- to the proseuchais, the prayers, the plural implying on-going and regular prayer sessions.
The caring—pastoral—work of the community is described in the well-known statement that they “had everything in common” (verse 44). As members of the group had needs, some would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the needy. They warmly participated in worship at the temple and ate meals in their homes, rejoicing and praising God.
This ideal picture is a summary statement intended to show the contrast with ordinary life produced by the immediate impact of the Holy Spirit. This was the first flush of the resurrection message in creating a new community of faith. The writer would insist that in some sense it lasted, even though the coming narratives will show the ways of the world still very much around and with the community of faith.
Psalm 23 (NIV translation)
The Psalm reading is the renowned confession of the Lord as a personal shepherd, used many times in the Lectionary. For this reading, I will simply note a few overtones about the pastoral care described.
“I shall not be in want”—the Hebrew verb haser means to lack something, but also to be lacking, to be missing. Thus, if one has a faithful shepherd, one will not be missing—when it is time to count the sheep into the sheepfold at nights. One will be kept track of, looked after (as in the parable of the ninety-nine and the one, Luke 15:3-7).
“He restores my soul”—the expression means to satisfy hunger, as in Lamentations 1:11 (“they barter their treasures for food, / to keep themselves alive [literally, “to return the soul]”), though in the same passage, 1:16, the phrase also means restoring one’s morale or courage (“No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit [soul]”). The pastor cares for both body and soul.
“He guides me in paths of righteousness / for his name’s sake.” The meaning is paths that lead to good destinations, that do not let one get lost. It is the opposite of paths that cause one to “perish” (Psalm 1:6), literally to get lost wandering (in the desert). The shepherd does this as a part of his character, of his integrity as a good shepherd—thus, “for his name’s sake.”
I Peter 2:19-25
The Epistle reading from First Peter is mainly addressed to the Christian experience of suffering unjustly. “If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (verse 20). In this the believers are repeating the experience of Christ their leader. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (verse 23).
Entrusting oneself to a just judge—that is trusting in the Good Shepherd. Thus the passage ends with a statement of salvation in terms of the shepherd model: “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (verse 25).
The Gospel reading is about Jesus as the shepherd—and simultaneously as the gate to the sheepfold. First on the shepherd.
It is helpful to recognize that the imagery is based on a community sheepfold, a large enclosed space out in the pastureland, often protected by stone walls, where the sheep were taken at night. There, watched by a gatekeeper, they could not stray off and were safe through the night from predators. Several shepherds used the same sheepfold. At morning each of them returned to the fold and called out their own sheep.
The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice (verses 2-5, NIV).
In the opening verse of the passage the shepherd is contrasted with a thief and a “robber” (lēstēs). The word for robber is the one applied to Barabbas in the passion narrative (John 18:40), and is used of those who abuse the holy place when Jesus cleanses the temple in Matthew (21:13, quoting Jeremiah 7:11). The word has connotations of violence. It is applied to the mob that came to arrest Jesus with clubs and swords (Mark 14:48) and it is Josephus’ word for revolutionary “brigands” (e.g., Jewish War, 2.254). The robber who climbs over the wall because the gate is not opened to him stands in sharp contrast to the legitimate and non-violent shepherd for whom the gate is opened. Shepherd was the image for ruler in the ancient world, and Jesus as shepherd is contrasted with the “robber” who tries to take the sheepfold by force.
This is probably the point of the words, “All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not listen to them” (verse 8). By the time John’s Gospel was complete and was being recited in Christian churches around Ephesus, the Jewish war of 66-73 was over and the way of the zealot, the revolutionary, had been demonstrated as disastrous. The contrast between the way of violence and the way of Jesus was clear: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (verse 10).
This shepherd is the gate leading to security and feasting in the house of the Lord “all the days of [one’s] life” (Psalm 23:6).