The Parable of the Good Shepherd

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A Roman procurator, who officially represented the Roman emperor, ruled Judea in the Saviour's time. At the same time, as though side by side, but actually also under [Roman] authority, there was a so-called king, who, on the one hand, was a puppet, and, on the other, was a tyrant with full authority. This was in the political interests of Rome. Because of this, the procurator and the king - Pontius Pilate and Herod the Younger in particular - had clashes. But direct contact with the people in all internal matters and all responsibility bound up with this were in the hands of those who sat in Moses' seat - as Jesus expressed it (Matthew 23:2) - the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious intelligentsia of that time. The Pharisees were a kind of "intellectual elite", an aristocracy, that adhered to a definite theological tendency toward external ritualism and a cult that had become decrepit, the aim of which was the preservation of national-religious consciousness under the political conditions of that time, but to the detriment of personal spiritual life and true religiosity. In contemporary language we might call the representatives of this class "apparatchiks".

It was namely with this ethnic authority of Israel, dubious according to its qualities and position, that Jesus entered into open conflict, knowing in advance how dearly this would cost Him. But there was no other way out: this authority was not even "Ceasar's", concerning which Jesus said that it was necessary to render unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar's, while at the same time rendering unto God the things that are God's (Matthew 22:21). This was a substitution for the Kingdom of God, a falsity, a lie. This was a direct challenge to God and morally unacceptable.

The main purpose of the allegorical discourse on the Good Shepherd was to contrast the true national teachers of religion, who were carefully leading the people along the right path to salvation, with the scribes and Pharisees - the false, egotistical directors of the spiritual-moral life of the people - who were thinking more of their own interests and were leading the people not to salvation, but to perdition.

The roots of the failure to comprehend Christ and of enmity towards Him lie in spiritual blindness. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, when according to the Law it was not allowed to labor, Jesus healed a man born blind. This was a miracle that shook everyone, but the learned Pharisees tried to convince the blind man that this man (Jesus) is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day (John 9:16)…we know that this man is a sinner (verse 24). To this the blind man replied: If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. The Pharisees answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out (verses 33-34).

Jesus learned of the healed blind man's encounter with the Pharisees and found it necessary to strengthen in the healed man the faith confessed by him. Calling the formerly blind man to Himself, Jesus asks Him: Dost thou believe on the Son of God? The healed man had not yet seen Him Who had healed him; consequently, he did not know Him. Expressing complete readiness to believe in the Son of God, that is, in the Messiah, he asks: Who is he? And when Jesus reveals to him His Divine dignity in the words, Thou has both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee, the healed man says in reply: Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (John 9:37-41).

Again, Simeon the God-receiver, holding in his arms the Infant Jesus, said: Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-35). Concerning this division of people into His followers and adversaries, Jesus said: For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.

The spiritual blindness of the learned Pharisees and scribes testifies that those exalted by their erudition and ability to see and understand everything prove to be uncomprehending of the main thing - God's truth; they become blind with regard to it; while those, who seemed unenlightened by learning and as if blind, felt this truth with their heart and accepted it. In this is the meaning of Jesus' words that they which see, that is, those who had the ability to see and understand what is seen, became blind; while those who did not have the ability to see everything immediately and to understand what is seen, that is, who were as though they did not see - they saw.

The Apostle and Evangelist John testifies that God's will is that everyone who sees the Son of God would have life eternal, and that the Son of God came and gave us light and understanding so that we would come to know the true God. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).

When Christ denounces the blindness of the Pharisees, it is clear that He is condemning spiritual blindness, a blindness that does not see the Light of the world, that is, Christ, the Messiah.

Further, Christ spoke the parable of the Good Shepherd, in which he points to Himself, as to the true Good Shepherd, Who brings those being shepherded to life eternal; and he points out His interrelationship with them and the significance of His pastorate for them.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not be the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice; and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd (John 10:1-16).

It is not by chance that the favorite images of shepherd and sheep are especially often encountered in Sacred Scripture, for there is a profound inner meaning in them. Just as sheep - those most meek and helpless animals - are especially in need of care and protection from wolves and other dangers that threaten them, and their well-being depends wholly on the shepherd, so also men's souls, which are subject to the snares of the ruler of the darkness of this age (cf. Ephesians 6:12), that is, the devil, to false teachings, to various temptations and to the influences of this world that poison the soul, are for their salvation acutely in need of a director and a true shepherd, and above all, the one, true Divine Chief Shepherd - Christ.

I am the good shepherd, said the Saviour, and with that pointed out the distinctive attribute of a true shepherd: self-sacrificing love for the sheep, even unto death. This also the Lord demonstrated in deed by His voluntary redemptive death on the Cross for the salvation of the human race. Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13) says the Lord.

I know Mine and Mine know Me. To Jesus are completely known the inner aspect, the moral disposition, the needs and dangers of His "sheep", that is, of those who truly believe in Him; and His "sheep", by faith, and in their souls, perceive Christ and through inner experience come to know Him as their Redeemer and Saviour. Just as between God the Father and Jesus Christ, so also between Christ and those who are "His" there exist spiritual unity, mutual love and understanding; they are redeemed by the Blood of the Lord and belong to Him.

The sheep hear the shepherd's voice, says the Lord. And he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. This part of the parable is based on the pastoral customs of the East. If, on account of weather conditions, it proved impossible to leave the flock of sheep in the pasture, for protection from wolves and thieves they would drive them into caves or fenced enclosures, the doors of which would be shut for the night, and the shepherd would remain with the flock. Sometimes several shepherds would drive their flocks into one enclosure; then one of them would remain with the sheep. In the morning the door-keeper would open the doors and the shepherds would go in and separate the flocks, calling their own sheep by name (in the East, usually, animals are given names, which they become used to and know). The sheep know their own shepherds by sight and voice. After gathering all his own sheep, each shepherd would lead his flock to pasture; moreover, he would go ahead with a staff, as a weapon of defense, and with a walking stick.

The Saviour knows His "sheep" and their names are written in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5, Philippians 4:3). He calls them, enlightens and gathers them. The "sheep" know Christ's voice, which sounds forth in His holy Gospel, they distinguish His teaching from false teachings, and they go after Him. These are the distinguishing features of Christ's sheep.

The Saviour has other sheep, which are not of this fold, and whom it is yet incumbent on Him to bring into the sheepfold, that is, into His Church. The Lord is speaking here of the Gentiles (since Jews living in the diaspora belonged to "their own fold", to Jewish theocratic society). According to God's well known determination, the Gentiles also "will hear" Christ's voice, as the prophets foretold (Micah 4:2, Isaiah 2:3 and others), and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. No longer will there be barriers separating the Gentiles from the Jews, the chosen people. The Great Good Shepherd will unite everyone without any distinction as to nationality and status. The fulfillment of these words of the Saviour is accomplished gradually by His authority through His followers and will be completed at the end of time by the conversion to Christ of the faithful remnant (Isaiah 10:22, Romans 11:25-26).

But the thing most dear and comforting for a Christian in this talk is Christ's blessed confirmation that He gives eternal life to His "sheep"; they shall not perish for ever, and no one, even the most powerful enemy, will snatch them out of His hands, for they are found under the all-powerful protection of the Omnipotent One.

It is only required of the Christian that he be a true "sheep" of Christ and walk in His steps without deviation, entirely giving himself over into His hands.

©V. Potapov

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