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From Chris's Heart

February 2010
I Am The Good Shepherd
by Nick Harris

In John 10:11, Jesus made the fourth of His seven "EGO EIMI" (I am) statements found in the Gospel of John. When Jesus said, "I, myself, am the good shepherd," He was reacting to the callousness of Israel's religious leaders (the false shepherds), who had excommunicated a man born blind from the synagogue of Israel after Jesus had given him his sight. These leaders placed a ban on this formerly blind man simply because he had believed upon Jesus, and had admitted as much to the Pharisees.

So, in John 10:11, Jesus fixed his attention upon the image of a shepherd, in this case, a good shepherd. Then he contrasted this good shepherd to those shepherds that He calls "hired hands," or "hirelings." People who lived in the time of Jesus were well acquainted with professional shepherds, so when Jesus spoke of these keepers of the flocks, his listeners understood exactly what he was describing.

The shepherd class in the ancient Judea was often born as shepherds. It was their family occupation. Boys born into shepherding families were sent out with a flock as soon as they were old enough to accept that responsibility, usually at six or seven years of age. Most of these shepherds did not even own the sheep they watched. Wealthy people usually owned these flocks, and they entrusted them to hired shepherds.

These shepherds were not highly regarded in Jewish society. They belonged on the very lowest rung of the social ladder. They were usually the very poorest of the poor. Polite society tended to avoid shepherds like the plague. One reason had to do with the personal hygiene of these men. Shepherds often exuded a rancid odor that resulted from wading through sheep and goat feces.

This constant contact with these animal wastes made them ritually impure as well. So, they were not allowed to attend synagogue services, or to offer sacrifices in the Temple. That was one reason why most of the men of Israel had no desire to become shepherds. Shepherds were social and religious outcasts.

Nevertheless, most of those men who were shepherds possessed two admirable qualities: they provided protection and care for their sheep. To administer this care each shepherd carried a staff. These staffs had the familiar crooked neck on one end so that a shepherd could to pull to safety a sheep that was stranded on a ledge, or penned in a crevasse.

In the evening, when a shepherd would return his flock to the fold, he would hold his staff across the opening of the fold, and count the sheep that passed under the staff. Every sheep had to be accounted for. The shepherd would also examine each animal that passed under the staff to see if that animal had been injured during the day.

Even a hired shepherd had the sole responsibility for the well-being of every sheep that was entrusted to his care. If a sheep in his care died, a hired shepherd had to offer the owner undeniable evidence that he was not responsible for the death of that sheep or goat.

The prophet Amos spoke of the responsibility of a shepherd whenever a sheep entrusted to his care was attacked or killed by a predatory beast. Amos observed that the shepherd was required to return to the owner two of the legs of that sheep or goat, and if he could not get the two legs, he was to return with a piece of an ear. The shepherd had to prove that the sheep or the goat had actually been killed by a predator (Amos 3:12), and had not been taken by him.

The law of God required this. Exodus 22:13 states, "If yet (a sheep or goat) is taken by beasts, let him (the shepherd) bring it (the remains) as evidence." Obviously, any shepherd who worked for hire had to prove to the owner of his flock that he could not have prevented the death of the sheep or goat.

In the well-known Old Testament story of David and Goliath, we find a classic illustration of a shepherd’s accountability for his flock. In the book of I Samuel, readers are told that as a teenager, David had been given oversight of the flock that belonged to his father, Jesse ben Obed. Even though Jesse owned the flock, David was responsible for its well-being.

However, in I Samuel 16, David was permitted to leave his flock to take food to his warrior brothers who were fighting the Philistines in the Valley of Elah, some 12 miles away. When David arrived in the camp of Israel, Goliath appeared and challenged the men of Israel to select a champion to do battle with him, winner take all. When no man of Israel would respond to the challenge, David offered to fight the Philistine, himself.

Several of Israel's warriors escorted the boy to the tent of their king, Saul ben Kish. The king took one look at this shepherd boy, and he asked him why he should even dare to even imagine that he could defeat a seasoned warrior like Goliath in combat. The young shepherd responded with abject confidence.

David told Saul that even though he was just a boy, he had already done battle with a bear and a lion. On two separate occasions these carnivores had seized one of his lambs, but neither predator had gotten away with his prey. In the case of the lion, David had actually delivered the lamb "out of the lion’s mouth." David saw this as his responsibility. It did not matter if he lost his life. He had an obligation, and he planned to keep it.

Such was the life of a true shepherd of that day. There was no glory, not even in fighting a lion, or a bear. There was only responsibility. These, then, were the responsibilities and social limitations of shepherds.

Being a Jew, Jesus was aware of the outcast status of shepherds, and the tasks they were expected to perform. And yet He would say, "I, myself, am the good shepherd." He dared to identify Himself with these outcasts.

And time would prove that this was a proper assessment of the role Jesus would play in His own life. His opponents looked at Him as an outcast. As they saw the situation, this man, Jesus, was as socially and religiously unacceptable as any shepherd tending a flock the hills of Judeah, and they totally ostracized Him.

But Jesus did not care about the ostracism of the establishment. They did not belong to Him, or to His Father. In His eyes, they were of their father, the devil, and He would not allow them to deter His mission in life.

He knew that his mission on earth was to be the good shepherd, no matter what the role might cost Him, and He gladly accepted the responsibility for every sheep that His Father had entrusted to Him. He knew that His sheep were helpless without Him, and He had to be a shepherd to them.

(To be continued next month)

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