Among the earliest known images that can be identified as representing Jesus are those that depict him as a man carrying a lamb over his shoulders – the Good Shepherd. In this image from the Catacombs of Domitilla, typically dated to the late third century, in addition to the lamb, Jesus the Good Shepherd is accompanied by four other sheep, two gazing at Jesus and two calmly grazing as though they had nothing to fear. Out of the frame but in the same image plane, wild animals prowl. The danger is real yet the sheep are unconcerned.
This image has biblical precedent. Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd as recorded in the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to John. The design of this image, however, comes from another source. In Greece, images as well as sculptures of a man carrying a lamb, sometimes over his shoulders, sometimes cradled in his arms, date back as far as the seventh century BCE and are associated with the cult of the Ram Bearer which was thought to prevent disease brought by “bad air” in the cities where it was practiced. More broadly, the image was also used to evoke the pleasures of the country life where one might live in peace and abundance.
When Christians take over this image and have it painted on the walls and ceilings of their tombs, the centuries-old design gets a profound reinterpretation. No longer is the viewer called to identify with the human figure as the archetype of the one invoking the favor of the gods or the handsome man living the good and peaceful life. Now the human figure is Jesus, the Good Shepherd who accompanies the sheep in the midst of danger. The viewer is invited to see themselves as the lamb being carried. The question is, “Where is Jesus carrying his lamb?”
“The shepherd is carrying the lamb out of danger!” we might reply. Certainly that’s the implication of Psalm 23, the one about how the Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd leads me to green pastures and still waters and a dwelling place in his house. But the shepherd also accompanies the lamb through the “valley of the shadow of death” and into the presence of enemies. Moreover, as we apply these ideas to our own lives, we’ll all need to agree that our affiliation with Jesus doesn’t serve to keep us out of trouble. Trouble in this world, whether it’s disease or some other distress, has a way of finding us anyway. Sometimes, we even find it ourselves through our own acts of foolish sinfulness. The valley of the shadow of death is familiar territory. Maybe the shepherd isn’t so good after all.
As he describes all of the ways that he is the Good Shepherd, Jesus identifies his own encounter with death to be the highest expression of his shepherdly goodness. He lays down his life for his sheep. This isn’t just an expression of self-destructive sacrifice. He claims to have the power to lay down his life and the power to take his life back up again. The valley that Jesus walks through isn’t just the shadow of death, but the brutal reality of death. He walks right through and out the other side.
It strikes me that by painting the image of the Good Shepherd inside the tombs of their beloved ones, our forebears in the faith by taking the older image of the man with the lamb over his shoulders were saying, “The Good Shepherd will carry our loved one through this death. As we lay our loved one down in death, Jesus will take her up again into life.”
Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t get us out of trouble. He goes with us through our trouble.
April 28, 2021
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as University Pastor at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions.