In the Old Testament, the shepherd image was key to Israel’s understanding of its relationship to the LORD. We read in chapter 34 of the Prophet Ezekiel, that Israel’s shepherds were acting worse than the hirelings mentioned in today’s Gospel. Ezekiel pointed out their failure, saying: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock?” (Ezek 34:2b, NABRE) They were denounced because they “did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. … [nor] bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezek 34:4). Consequently, the LORD said: “Look! I am coming against these shepherds. I will take my sheep out of their hand and put a stop to their shepherding my flock … I myself will pasture my sheep ...” (Ezek 34:10, 15). This image of the LORD as shepherd is clearly demonstrated in John 10:11-18, where Jesus says he is the Noble Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (10:11), and the Shepherd of the one-flock (10:16). Jesus is the Noble Shepherdwho replaces the weak shepherds of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23-24).
Why am I referring to Jesus as the Noble Shepherd, instead of the Good Shepherd? Because there is more here than meets the eye, particularly for those of us who read the Gospel in English. The Greek word used by the evangelist to describe Jesus, which has been translated as good, is kalos (καλός). Kalos means admirable, beautiful, commendable, excellent, precious, surpassing; in a word, noble. The evangelist was describing Jesus as the self-sacrificing hero shepherd, who knows his own sheep (10:14), and “will lay down [his] life for” them (10:15). Jesus gathers all of his flock into one-fold, so that there is but one shepherd (10:16). Today’s Gospel reading recalls several of the Greek criteria for a noble death: (1) A death that benefits the sheep; (2) A comparison between shepherd and hireling; (3) The manly courage displayed by the shepherd who battles the wolf; (4) The voluntary nature of his death; and (5) Jesus’ duties in courage and justice for his sheep and to his Father. Jesus died a noble death, for he is indeed the Noble Shepherd (10:11-18). All of these descriptions depict a deep, loving relationship between shepherd and sheep, and recalls images of the noble death portrayed in Greek literature, of which the audience was well aware.
Scholars believe that in order to write in Greek as well as the evangelist did, he must have been trained in Greek literature. So, it is more than plausible that the evangelist wrote the Gospel with the genre of the Greek noble death in mind. Not only did many Israelites know the Greek language, but the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), for those who had lost their native language (Aramaic). The translators, who were aware of the Greek genre of honor in a noble death, used that genre in their translation. For example, the Book of Maccabees, written about 100 B.C. in Greek for a Greek speaking Jewish audience, contains ample evidence of the noble death genre. Maccabees frequently speaks of dying nobly: “When Lysias saw the tide of the battle turning, and the increased boldness of Judas, whose men were ready either to live or to die nobly, he withdrew to Antioch …” (1 Macc 4:35). We read in the 2nd Book of Maccabees of: “Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, … [who was] being forced to open his mouth to eat pork. But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, spitting out the meat…” In going to his death, he said that he was leaving “the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” (2 Macc 6:18-20, 28). Eleazar left this world as “a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.” (2 Macc 6:18-20, 28, 31)
The Greek-speaking audiences of John’s Gospel knew and appreciated this value code of the dominant culture of their day. And we really shouldn’t be surprised since this is nothing new to those of us who hear and read the Sacred Scriptures. We only need to recall the plight of Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers (Gen 37). He was truly a noble hero since he did not exact revenge, but rather became the means of his brothers’ salvation from the great famine in the land (cf. Gen 41 ff). We should also recall the three Jewish youths Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the Book of Daniel, who preferred being thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, rather than bow down to a false god (cf. Dan 3). And who hasn’t heard of the great hero of the Book of Judges, Samson, who died a heroic death when he caused the temple to fall upon Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, who were “assembled to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon” (Judg 16:23, 30).
Theme in Our Life
Honor and shame were very much a part of the culture of Jesus’ time. The high point of John’s Gospel was the ironic honor Jesus experienced when he reigned upon the cross during his hour of glory: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (12:32; cf. 3:14; 8:28). Later in the Gospel, we read that Jesus taught his disciples: "Greater love than this has no one, than that one lay down one's life for one's friend" (15:13). This remark proclaims that "laying down one's life for one's friends" is not only noble (cf. 10:11 & 15) but is also the highest form of love. In the scene of his arrest (chapter 18), we read how Jesus stood between his disciples and those who would apprehend him. He boldly came forward like a shepherdwho positions himself between the flock and the wolf. He took control of the conversation, benefitting his flock by commanding his captors to "Let these men go" (18:8). Jesus demonstrated heroic courage and justice by honoring his Father’s Will and voluntarily choosing death (18:4-7). The Gospel concludes with the investiture of Peter in the role of shepherd (21:15-17). Jesus, in predicting the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God (21:18-19), transformed Peter, from a hireling who acted cowardly by denying him, into another noble shepherd.
Preparing for Sunday
The overwhelming emphasis of the Noble Shepherd discourse is Jesus’ benevolent love for his sheep, even to death on the cross. True and faithful followers of Jesus will also be known by their sacrificial love for the flock.So, what lesson can we take away from today’s Gospel? Well, perhaps we could ask ourselves: “Do I genuinely love the sheep God has entrusted to my care?” Now, we may object that the sheep in our care (e.g., our children, co-workers, family, friends, neighbors, and even parishioners) can, at times, be inconsiderate, lacking in love, and obstinate, but nowhere does John’s Gospel suggest that a shepherd’s love is conditional upon the sheep’s reciprocation. Rather, our job as disciples is to focus on doing what needs to be done with sacrificial love “for the sheep” (10:11). Afterall, we are not paid hirelings (cf. 10:12-13) … are we?
PRAYER: O LORD, let us remember the privilege of tending your flocks with kindness, gentle laughter, love, prayer, and our own example of being both sheep and shepherd. May you give us tender hearts, so that we may shepherd well the sheep you have entrusted to our care.