As we look back over the shepherd and sheep metaphors of the Old Testament we can see how Jeremiah and Ezekiel each have nuanced the Psalm 23 story to make their particular points. Jesus tells a parable in Luke 15 more closely resembling the Psalm 23 story while retaining a couple of important themes from the other metaphors.
Psalm 23 ends in the “house of the Lord” with a celebration. Jeremiah and Ezekiel end their stories with the sheep back safely in the land. There is a strong Zionist element to their thinking. Kenneth Bailey notes that Jesus “de-Zionizes” the story in Luke 15 and returns to the Psalm 23 version where the shepherd brings his sheep back to the house and celebrates. Jesus is saying something about his mission as the messiah that does not quite square with Zionist vision of the Old Testament metaphors.
Jesus, by implication, includes the idea of a bad shepherd in his shepherd parable. Only a bad shepherd would lose a sheep in the first place. Remember that Jesus told the parable in response to the scribes and Pharisees accusation that Jesus was eating with sinners (i.e., lost sheep.) Jesus was a rabbi and therefore a shepherd with the scribes and Pharisees. However, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was taking responsibility for the lost sheep and searching them out.
This says two things. First, by direct implication, Jesus casts the scribes and the Pharisees asking the questions as the bad shepherds of the Old Testament. Not a very flattering comparison. But second, remember who the good shepherd symbolizes in the Old Testament stories. They symbolize God. Jesus was comparing himself with God!
The fact is that all of the three-in-one parables in Luke 15 appear to be directly connected with the metaphors of Psalm 23. Here is how Kenneth Bailey sizes up these two chapters in the chapter five of Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15.
1. The Shepherd
Psalm 23 – The psalm opens with shepherd images.
Luke 15 – The chapter opens with a shepherd parable
Psalm 23 – Repentance is discussed within a parable about a shepherd and his sheep.
Luke 15 – Repentance is discussed within a parable about a shepherd and his sheep.
3. A Sheep is Lost
Psalm 23 – In 23:3 the sheep is presumed lost for it is restored. “He restores my soul [nephesh].
Luke 15 – The sheep is lost as is the coin and as are the two sons.
4. God Restores the Lost
Psalm 23 – (With the lost sheep) “He [returns/]restores my soul [life; nephesh].”
Luke 15 – (With the lost son) First (self-restoration): “He returned to himself [nephesh].” Second, (restored by the father): The father finds him and restores him to sonship.
5. God and Female Imagery
Psalm 23 – God does the work of a woman. God prepares a banquet
Luke 15 – A story about a good woman is parallel to a story of a good shepherd and to a story of a good father. The good father runs down the road like a mother.
6. Danger and Survival
Psalm 23 – The psalmist passes through a valley of deep darkness/death and survives.
Luke 15 – The prodigal passes through a great famine and survives.
7. Protection and Comfort
Psalm 23 - The psalmist is protected and comforted by the rod and staff of the shepherd. The banquet protects him from his enemies.
Luke 15 – The prodigal is saved from the famine and protected from the hostility of his brother (and the village) by an embrace, a kiss, a banquet.
Psalm 23 – God acts “for his name’s sake” (v. 3). God preserves his own (holy) name.
Luke 15 - The shepherd preserves the honor of his name by finding the lost. The woman and the father do the same.
Psalm 23 - The psalmist is followed by mercy/love (hesed).
Luke 15- The father has compassion when he sees the prodigal at a distance.
10. The Host Prepares a Banquet Before the Enemies of the Guest
Psalm 23 – “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Luke 15- a. Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners in the presence of their enemies the Pharisees. b. The father orders a banquet for the younger son to be held in the presence of his enemies (his brother and his brother’s friends.)
11. The Reversal of Roles
Psalm 23 – God prepares a table before the psalmist. Ordinarily, this is what the worshiper does for God.
Luke 15 – The father gives his sons their inheritance well before his death. He shows costly love to each. They should host a banquet for him. He orders a table spread before them.
12. The House
Psalm 23 – The psalmist is brought back to dwell permanently in the house of God.
Luke 15- The sheep and the coin are returned to the house. The two sons are invited to dwell permanently in their father’s house.
13. Theology Christology
Psalm 23 – a. God the shepherd restores his sheep. b. God prepares a banquet. c. God hosts a costly banquet.
Luke 15 – a. Jesus is the shepherd who finds and restores his sheep. b. Jesus is the woman who finds her coin. c. Jesus (on the road/in the courtyard) invites sons to a costly banquet.
It should now be evident how masterfully Jesus used metaphors of the Old Testament recast a theological perspective for the scribes and Pharisees. But this is not the end of the story. Kenneth Bailey believes that not only is the third story of the Compassionate Father in Luke a related to Psalm 23. It is actually a retelling of the story of Jacob which the Jews identified as a metaphor the nation.