Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Good Shepherd Mosaic

Most of the first Christians were Jews, but quite early on they departed from the Jewish prohibition on religious images and started to make pictures. One of the most ancient is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This decorated the walls of the Roman catacombs, and of course, has deep Jewish roots in the 23rd Psalm. Over the next two millennia, it has proved to be one of the most enduringly attractive subjects for artists of all kinds.

Its contemporary appeal is reflected in the fact that our modern lectionary makes the 4th Sunday of Easter “Good Shepherd” Sunday in all three years, and with unusually little variation between them. The appointed Psalm is always ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and the Gospel for the day, with slightly different selections, is taken from John Chapter 10, where Jesus applies the metaphor of a shepherd to himself. 

The continuing popularity of the 23rd Psalm has made the language of sheep and shepherd familiar and comforting to most church people. And yet the world in which we live – even in rural areas – is so far removed from the world in which the biblical shepherd was a familiar sight, that we might wonder whether the image can actually speak to us still. For a modern audience, describing faithful Christians as ‘sheep’ can be expected to have negative connotations – suggesting a docile inability to think for themselves.

The Good Shepherd Henry Ossawa Tanner (1903)

To make the metaphor speak afresh, it is essential to understand that shepherds in biblical times had two crucial tasks -- to lead the sheep to sources of water that they couldn’t find for themselves, and to protect them from wild animals. The superior strength, wisdom and care of the shepherd was vital if the sheep were to survive and flourish. Without it, they would “go astray, each to his own way” as Isaiah famously puts it (Is.56:3).

So the message in the image is this. However earnest our spiritual seeking and searching, it is God who finds us, not we who find God. The challenge is to relinquish paths through life of our own devising, and have the wisdom and strength to recognize and follow His call.

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