THE image of the Lord as “shepherd” in our psalm is as much political as pastoral. It asserts his sovereignty, not only over the false shepherds of Israel, but also over the kings of the nations that surround it. Psalm 23 calls its hearers away from reliance on human wealth and might, which cannot provide lasting security (Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Cambridge New Bible Commentary: Psalms).
Reading the psalm from a Christological perspective, Patristic commentators draw out its sacramental resonances (Susan Gillingham, Psalms through the Centuries). We are led from death to life, not by the pomp and might of empire, but by the self-offering of Christ the Good Shepherd. Christ spreads a “table” before us, with his own self as food.
In John 10.11, Jesus declares himself to be the “Good Shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep”. In the preceding verses, set for us this Sunday, he also uses the images of a “gate” and its “gatekeeper”, and contrasts true shepherds who enter by this gate with false ones who “climb in by another way”.
Jesus tells us that he is the gate. But Patristic commentators differ in their interpretations of the image of “gatekeeper”, which they understand variously as the scriptures, the angels which guide the Church, and Jesus himself — whom St Cyril of Alexandria suggests is “both the Door and the Lord of the door”.
Jesus warns against “false shepherds” who fail to enter by this gate. In doing so, he gives every generation of disciples a criterion for discerning true from false shepherds. As St Thomas Aquinas observes, this is the deeper logic of the passage: “If you wish to enter as a sheep to be kept safe there, or as a shepherd to keep the people safe, you must enter the sheepfold through Christ.”
The true shepherds who tend the flock of Christ have entered by the “gate” of Christ. They recognise him as the supreme Shepherd whose life is offered for the sheep — and are baptised into his death, and thereby into the power of his resurrection.
Aquinas contrasts the true shepherds of the Church who enter by the “gate” of Christ with “philosophers” who teach that humans can be saved by their own virtue, and “Pharisees” who establish “ceremonial traditions”. While not all false shepherds are malicious, he argues that they count as “thieves and robbers” because they “destroy both themselves and others”.
Jesus’s words are a sobering reminder of the responsibility of Christian ministry. The only foundation on which shepherds should encourage the faithful to build is the sacrificial love of the supreme Shepherd. Virtue has an important place in the Christian life, but it is a dangerous error to treat it as the foundation. Rather, it is the fruit of union with Christ, in whom alone we find “abundant life”.
This “abundant life” is described in vivid detail in our reading from Acts. As Willie Jennings observes, the apostles are “caught in the echo of a life fully dependent on God, a life yielded to the Spirit”. What we see in this passage is “the power of Jesus’ life pressing into the normal, the daily, the routine, and drawing God’s people into the new” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts).
The Lord is present here in the same three ways as in the encounter on the road to Emmaus: in the power of the Spirit, in the words of the scriptures (which form the basis of “the apostles’ teaching”) and in the sacrament (“the breaking of bread”). Worship and ethics are completely interwoven. The behaviour of the Primitive Church — including her attitude to possessions — flows from her experience of the Spirit in her midst.
For us to recognise the Lord as our Shepherd requires the same willingness to “yield” to the action of his Spirit. This is what Peter urges on his readers in our epistle. When they endure unjust treatment, he invites them to unite their suffering with that of their Lord. To do this is not to collude with oppression. To follow Christ as shepherd is to draw on the only source of genuine and lasting liberation.
Trusting in the Lord as their shepherd, these early Christians neither bowed to the violence of empire nor responded in kind. Uniting their suffering to that of the Good Shepherd, they received “abundant life” — in time, and for eternity.