Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The good shepherd


Jesus Christ's second group of parables demonstrate how God's loving kindness enables man to return to his first state of blessedness in God.

A Roman procurator, who officially represented the Roman emperor, ruled Judaea in the Savior's time. Beside him but under [Roman] authority, sat a co-ruler, who was also a local tyrant. The king served Roman political interests, but the procurator and the king - Pontius Pilate and Herod the Younger, in particular - had clashes. A lower level of government officials was the Scribes (lawyers) and Pharisees (rabbinical officials), who had more direct contact with the people and who sat "in Moses' seat," as Jesus expressed it (Matthew 23:2). The Scribes and the Pharisees were the religious intelligentsia. The Pharisees especially valued external ritualism and a decrepit national cult of religious consciousness, without a real spiritual life. A contemporary term for representatives of this class is "apparatchiks."

Lord Jesus Christ entered conflict with this ethnic authority, knowing ahead of time how much it would cost Him. Conflict was inevitable because the Pharisees were arrogant but lacked any real authority from Rome or the Jewish temple. Their status was less than "Caesar's," as Jesus recalled when He said to "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, while at the same time rendering unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). The Pharisees were poor prophets for the Kingdom of God. Saint Paul the Apostle may have been a Pharisee before his conversion.

The main allegory of the good shepherd parable contrasts the true Judaic teachers, who lead people to salvation, with the Scribes and Pharisees, the egotists of spiritual blindness. On the Sabbath, the day of rest, when the Law forbids labor, Jesus healed a man born blind. This miracle amazed everyone, and the anxious but learned Pharisees tried to convince the blind man that "this man [Jesus] is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day" (John 9:1) . . . "we know that this man is a sinner" (verse 24). To this complaint, 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 heard about the healed man's encounter with the Pharisees and called on him to strengthen the man's faith. Jesus asks him: "Dost thou believe on the Son of God?" Because the healed man had not yet seen His Healer, he did not recognize Him. Expressing readiness to believe in the Son of God, that is, in the Messiah, he asked: "Who is he?" And when Jesus revealed His divine dignity to him in the words, "Thou has both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee," the healed man said in reply: "Lord, I believe. And he worshiped 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 the Infant Jesus in his arms 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 Scribes and Pharisees implies that men exalted by erudition may possibly never see the main of God's truth. The learned may be hopelessly blind, and the ignorant or handicapped people who appear hopeless may see truth in their hearts and accept it. In this parable, the blind and unlettered can see.

The Apostle and Evangelist John testifies that God's will is for everyone who sees the Son of God to have life eternal, and that the Son of God came and gave us light and understanding to know the true God. 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 blind Pharisees, He condemns their spiritual blindness to the "Light of the world," that is, Christ, the Messiah.

Further, Christ's good shepherd parable points to Christ as the true Good Shepherd, Who brings those sheep to life eternal -

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by 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).

The shepherd and his sheep are mentioned frequently in Sacred Scripture, for sheep are meek, helpless animals who need care and special protection from wolves and other dangers. Their well-being depends on the shepherd. The true shepherd of men preserves us from the snares of the "ruler of the darkness of this age" (cf. Ephesians 6:12), from the devil's false teachings, his temptations, and worldly influences. The one, true divine shepherd is Christ.

"I am the good shepherd," said the Savior, who would show a self-sacrificing love for his the sheep, even to a death on the Cross for the salvation of the human race. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) says the Lord.

"I know Mine and Mine know Me." Jesus knows the heart, the moral disposition, the needs and dangers of His "sheep," those who truly believe in Him. His sheep perceive Christ, and know Him as their Redeemer and Savior. Just as between God the Father and Jesus Christ, so between Christ and those who are "His" there exist communion, mutual love, and understanding.

"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 pastoral customs. If, on account of weather, shepherds could not leave the flock of sheep in the pasture, with wolves and thieves about, they would drive them into caves or fenced enclosures, shut the doors for the night, and the shepherds would remain with their flocks. Sometimes several shepherds would drive their flocks into one enclosure; then one of them would stay inside with the sheep. In the morning the door-keeper would open the doors and the other shepherds would enter and gather their flock, calling their own sheep by name. The sheep know their own shepherds by sight and voice. After gathering all his own sheep, each shepherd would lead his flock to pasture, walking ahead with a staff for defense, and with a walking stick.

The Savior 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 in His holy Gospel. They distinguish His teaching from false teachings, and they follow Him.

The Savior has other sheep, "which are not of this fold," whom he must also 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 barriers separate the Gentiles from the Jews, the chosen people. The Good Shepherd and His followers will gather everyone, and His work will be done at the end of time in the conversion to Christ of the "faithful remnant" (Isaiah 10:22, Romans 11:25-26).

But the best thing in this parable is Christ's blessed confirmation that He gives eternal life to His "sheep" if the Christian be a true "sheep" of Christ and walk in His steps.

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