Today I want to share one short line from Mark 14:27:
And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’
What does it mean for Jesus to refer to himself as a “shepherd?”
First, “shepherd” is a metaphor for king.
Alan Storey makes a point I think the church needs to hear: we’re confused about leadership, and our words demonstrate it. In the church, we call clergy “pastor,” and the word “pastor” means shepherd, but the Bible does not use the word “shepherd” to describe clergy. The word “shepherd” is applied to kings. Although I carry the title “pastor” and talk about “pastoral care,” it’s always against the background that this metaphor is basically wrong. Whenever the Bible uses the metaphor of shepherd, it refers to a king or a national leader (1 Kings 22, Psalm 78:70-72, Isaiah 44:27-28). Moses and David are the most famous leader-shepherds. They are not—and this is important—priests.
Storey says that the ancient Israelites understood that national leaders were responsible for the well-being of the people. Most of those shepherd-kings had paid advisors called prophets (and some, like Amos, who did the job for free). The role of the prophet was to hold the shepherds accountable. The church has lost its prophetic voice because it has essentially let national leaders off the hook and assigned “shepherding” to clergy, claiming that it is the church’s business to take care of the poor. But prophets like Ezekiel made it clear that part of the job of shepherds (national leaders) was to make sure the fat sheep (the rich) didn’t take resources from the starving sheep (the poor). It is not surprising that today, the rich and powerful prefer a society in which the role of “shepherd” is shifted to an apolitical and impotent church, and the role of the prophet goes unfulfilled.
Second, Jesus shows he’s already thinking of himself as a king.
(The other place Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd is in John, where he calls himself “The Good Shepherd,” but describes other leaders as “hired hands” and “thieves.”)
Here in Mark, as Jesus prepares his disciples to face his arrest, trial, and execution, he’s taking on the role of a king who is under siege from an enemy power. In the very next chapter, Pilate will ask Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He will be referred to as king in a mocking way by Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the sign over his head.
This was a familiar story to Israel and Judah, who saw their kings humiliated and executed and their people scattered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Jesus indicates that he embodies Israel’s history in his captivity and execution. Like Israel, he will be treated unjustly by his captors:
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future? (Isaiah 53:8)
But also, like Israel and Judah, he and his followers will be reunited and restored. “Who could have imagined his future?” The scattered sheep will be gathered again, and the Good Shepherd will take over.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:16)
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23)
Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here:
You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.