If you are a first time reader of my blog or if you have read every article I’ve ever written, there is a very important concept to understand about the Bible that I continue to reiterate: the text plays and expands on the text. Over and over again we see this happening. When you see a story in the text, ask first: where else in the text is this coming from? Let’s look at an example, in Jesus’ brilliant exposition in Luke 15.
The Context in Luke 15
In Luke 15, Jesus tells us story of Good Shepherd. It’s important to note that he tells this parable (it’s one parable in 3 parts) in response to the mutterings of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law because he receives and eats with sinners, so we know he’s speaking to a smart and well-educated group of people.
4“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Immediately the question we should ask is: where is Jesus getting this from? Jesus was/is a man of the text, he taught it, lived it, and died it. Jesus, being a typical rabbi hardly ever simply makes stuff up. Rather, he uses the scriptures that he knows his people are familiar with, not to mention that in this context he is engaging in a scholarly debate with well-learned men.
When you think of a “good shepherd”, probably one of the first things to come to mind is the most famous psalm of all. Jesus’ central text is Psalm 23. The psalm starts out with a Good Shepherd.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
But then in v.3 we get the first hint of our own unfaithfulness.
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
The literal Hebrew which the NIV translates as “he restores my soul” means “he brings me back”. The word for “bring back” comes from the root word “shuv” meaning to repent, and so right away we see that there is a lost sheep in this psalm, but God brings him back and guides him in the paths of righteousness. The Psalm continues and notice that it ends with a banquet.
Notice that this is the pattern for Jesus’ parable: shepherd, lost sheep, sheep returned (with overtones of repentance), banquet. Jesus is pulling his story directly out of the text! It’s important to note that while Psalm 23 is the pattern for Jesus’ story, the prophets also used Psalm 23 to paint a different picture, something that both Jesus and his scholarly audience would have been aware of.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel
David used 6 verses in his psalm. Shortly before the exile of Judah, Jeremiah in chapter 23 expands it from 6 verses to 8 verses, and uses it to paint a very different picture but with all the same details. Instead of one good shepherd we have many bad shepherds. Instead of one lost sheep we have an entire flock. God promises:
3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.”
Once again we see the Hebrew root word “shuv” in the English translation “bring them back”, an important feature in linking the two texts. An in this diatribe, God promises to punish the bad shepherds and replace them with good ones.
During the Exile, Ezekiel once again expanded upon the text. While Jeremiah took 8 verse, Ezekiel took 31. God says through Ezekiel:
15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
And again we see the Hebrew root word “shuv” in the English translation of “bring back” linking it strongly to Jeremiah 8 and Psalm 23 (as well as the language “I will…have them lie down”). We see the story evolve in Ezekiel: not only will the shepherds be punished, but God will destroy them!
In each of these stories, who is the image for the “good shepherd”? God. In each of these stories, who is the one going after the lost? God. In Jesus’ story, the shepherd is good and clearly represents God. But wait, at the end of Jesus’ story, the shepherd calls his friends together and holds a party for rescuing one lost sheep. What’s he saying? Here’s my paraphrase of what I think he’s saying:
You guys are supposed to be shepherding these people, but you won’t even go near them! So I will seek them and bring them back because you aren’t doing it. If you don’t shape up, God will destroy you like he did the other bad leaders! These are real people, and they’re lost. Do something about it! And when I have done this, we ought to be eating a meal together in celebration, but instead all you do is complain that I’m having the party! What’s with you guys?!
–Jesus to the Pharisees and teachers of the law (James’ paraphrase)
Maybe you agree with my interpretation, and maybe you don’t, but one thing is for certain: Jesus uses the text and without first seeking where it is that he’s drawing from, you will miss the fuller, deeper, richer picture that Jesus paints.
Peace to you,