“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” John 10:11,14
Jesus painted word pictures to describe God’s kingdom, and they often included specific professions. Farmers, vineyard owners, and even rulers were jobs that his listeners were familiar with, and could relate to. Using these and others helped make spiritual matters more understandable to everyone.
The image of a shepherd would no doubt have brought up thoughts of dirty, smelly, often boring and occasionally dangerous work. The men and women who held these jobs were considered by most to be of a lower class. So why would Jesus use this job as an illustration concerning their glorious God?
While taking a closer look at the actual definition and duties of shepherds in Jesus’ time, I learned a couple of interesting things:
- In homes of higher status, the son or daughter of the landowner usually took on the role of shepherd. This indicated to me that though the job was menial and rough, there was a sense of importance to it. The work was entrusted to someone deemed worthy to handle the challenges. David is an example of this tradition – long before he was King over God’s people, he guarded his father’s flocks on the hillside. Both positions required courage and compassion.
- Shepherds in these homes could earn their way up the ladder of success, so to speak. According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, those workers who reached the highest level were given the title “chief” or “mighty”. Even if the world at large saw shepherds as lowly, those that understood the local economy knew how valuable a good shepherd could be. If they were wise, they would show appreciation.
Smith’s goes on to say that doing the job well required “great watchfulness”, as well as a “tenderness toward the young and feeble.”
I’ve always found comfort in the basic message of these verses, namely that I am part of a flock, and someone greater is providing for my needs and protecting me. But now I see a deeper reason for the use of this image. Jesus came to earth in the most humble way, a human baby, yet He always knew His own worth. It makes sense that He would connect Himself with a lowly but vitally important earthly profession.