Jesus chose a shepherd, a woman, and a father as the central characters in his Luke 15 parables. Is there any significance to the selection of these three characters? Kenneth Bailey would suggest that there is.
There are several metaphors for God in the Psalms but they divide into two categories: Inanimate and animate. For instance, Bailey mentions rock, fortress, tower, or shield as common metaphors. All deal with safety from danger. The most prominent animate metaphor is King and, as Bailey notes, it congers up the same ideas of safety as do the inanimate objects. Bailey goes on to write,
“But a thin stream of metaphors for God is composed of people who are not (like the lord in Isaiah 6:1) high and lifted up, seated on a throne at a great distance from the worshiper. Three and only three metaphors compose this stream, and each deserves scrutiny.” (Jacob and the Prodigal, 57-58)
The three and only three metaphors that Bailey mentions are shepherd, father, and mother.
Probably the most beloved Psalm in both Jewish and Christian traditions is Psalm 23:
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff --
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long. (NRSV)
I will have more to say about this Psalm later but for now it is enough to note its central place as an image of God even though Psalm 80 is the only other psalm that directly uses this imagery. (David invites God to be Israel’s shepherd in 28:9. I also find it interesting that shepherding, so despised by the Pharisees and scribes, should be one of three primary animate metaphors.)
Bailey says there are only two psalms that directly refer to God as father:
Psalm 68:5-6 (NRSV)
5 Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
6 God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land.
Psalm 103:13-14 (NRSV)
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
These psalms cast God as a caring and compassionate protector of his children.
As to the metaphor of God as mother, Bailey says there is only one mention in the Psalms. Bailey choose the NIV for presenting this passage because he says it is more in accord with pre-Christian Syriac translations:
Psalm 131 (NIV)
1 My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.
So there are only three metaphors used in the Psalms to suggest a caring and compassionate God. Jesus took these three metaphors and wove them into a three-in-one parable about the nature of God. He took minor themes from Psalms and made them the central image of who God is. Jesus was making a direct link to the God of the Old Testament but emphasizing traits that had not previously been emphasized.
But Jesus did not only connect to the Psalms. The shepherd metaphor was used not only in Psalm 23 but also in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Each use of the metaphor says something a little different about God. Bailey makes the case that the “Lost Sheep” parable is actually a retelling of these Old Testament metaphors and of the Psalm 23 story in particular.