“I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for my sheep.” John 10:14-15
According to John’s Gospel, sometime when Jesus was visiting Jerusalem, he cured a man who had been born blind. He performed this healing on the Sabbath — the day of rest. Afterward, in answer to some of the Pharisees who criticized him for working on the Sabbath, Jesus told a parable in which he used imagery drawn from contemporary sheep farming to illustrate his devotion to his followers and his readiness to sacrifice himself on their behalf.
Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with this scene. In Palestine at that time, sheep were usually brought into a courtyard in front of a house in the evening. Several flocks belonging to different people were sometimes kept in the same fold, and a gatekeeper was employed to watch over them at night. Whereas shepherds were let in at the gate by the gatekeeper, anyone trying to climb into the fold was certain to be a robber. Inside the fold, the shepherd would call to his sheep, who would respond to his voice — they would never follow other shepherds or strangers.
The Pharisees did not grasp the story, so Jesus explained by telling them that he himself was “the gate of the sheepfold.” He was referring to a situation when, if it was too far to bring a flock of sheep back home, a shepherd would drive the sheep into a nearby cave or temporary sheepfold. He would then lie down for the night across the entrance, acting as a sort of gate. A person could gain access to the sheep only by climbing over the shepherd and waking him up.
Jesus’ parable echoes the images of sheep farming that are found in the Old Testament in both a positive and a negative sense. On one hand, in Ezekiel 34, the Jewish rulers are compared to shepherds who have neglected and exploited their flocks. On the other, in Psalm 23, the Lord is spoken of as a shepherd whose sheep lack nothing: “In grassy meadows he lets me lie. By tranquil streams he leads me…”
By using these familiar images, Jesus sought to explain the close relationship between himself and God the Father, as well as his care of, and sacrificial commitment to, the faithful. Jesus also referred to other sheep “that are not of this fold”, who would also hear his voice. Presumably, this was an allusion to the fact that Gentiles would also become believers.
Through his imagery of the good shepherd and his flock, Jesus illustrated the relationship that existed between himself and the faithful. He presented an ideal model of any relationship that involves a leader and followers.
Parents, managers of sports teams, senior executives, teachers — all need to establish a bond of trust between themselves and their charges, based on selfless concern for those charges. If leaders are in their position simply because of money, status or power, they may well, like the hired men in the parable, abrogate their responsibility when the going gets tough. A true leader will be prepared to make sacrifices, just as Jesus was ready to give up his life for humankind. Jesus did it perfectly and was perfectly trustworthy. He suggested that those who follow him can trust him to help them live up to this ideal.