“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15, NRSV)
Many churches mark the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday, focusing on the compelling image in John 10 of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. The corresponding Old Testament text from Psalm 23 adds to the beauty and depth of this image. The early church found great comfort in the Good Shepherd image. Following the tragic low of Jesus’ crucifixion, the surprising but intense high resulting from his Resurrection, and the challenges of following the Risen Savior in the ordinary routines of their lives, the first followers of Jesus were grasping for an image of God that could sustain them through the uncertain days ahead. Recalling the many ways Jesus described himself and his ministry, the imagery of the Good Shepherd resonated for them in its reference to the One who lovingly cares for them and the One who leads and guides them toward the best possible life.
The imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has translated well over the centuries for people who remained closely linked to agricultural societies. For the last 75 years, as more and more of us experience less connection to the land, Warner Sallman’s iconic painting, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” has emotionally linked us to this powerful image. In his painting, Sallman depicts Jesus walking through a pasture with a lamb in one arm, a shepherd’s crook in the other, and a flock of sheep at his feet.
Sallman is also the artist of the 1940 painting, “Head of Christ,” selling over 500 million prints since its creation and “Christ at Heart’s Door,” where Jesus is knocking at a symbolic door. I wonder whether the Good Shepherd image will still communicate the depth and breadth of God’s love to future generations as it has to mine?
There are two aspects of “The Lord is My Shepherd” painting that often go unnoticed. First, as Jesus cradles a lamb in his arm, one of the sheep, presumably a ewe that is the mother of the lamb, looks somewhat quizzically at Jesus. It’s as if she wants to trust the Good Shepherd, but it’s hard to let go of the responsibility she feels for her offspring. I think those of us who have children are familiar with her trepidation of fully letting go and entrusting our children to God. Maybe you are better at it than I am; however, it’s hard not to feel total responsibility for our children. Second, following behind to Jesus’ right, and almost hidden, is a black sheep. Sallman painted this picture sometime between 1942 and 1950, a racially charged and anti-immigrant period in our nation’s history. Of course, it could simply be a reference to any who feel like a black sheep excluded from the Kingdom of God; however, it’s important to note that Sallman’s parents were immigrants from Finland and Sweden. His personal experience and deep faith, rooted in the Swedish Evangelical Covenant of America, may have influenced his artistic choices.
I hope the imagery of the Good Shepherd thrives in the coming years because it aptly characterizes God and his desire to be in a relationship with us. I also wonder if any contemporary image can capture the essence of a God who lays down his life for those he loves? I would love to hear your thoughts.