Part of the fun of translation is that words do not map directly to each other between languages. One word will have two meanings in the other language and the translator will have to choose. A perfect example is John 10.11 where Jesus says “I am (yes, it’s an ‘I am’ saying) the kalos shepherd.” For the more literal minded, he actually says “I am the shepherd the kalos one.” But regardless of the form kalos is what he is.
The fun part of translation is that kalos means both “good” and “beautiful.” Thus Jesus can be the “Good Shepherd” or the “Beautiful Shepherd.” This is not as weird as at first it may seem, the Greek philosophers argued about The Good, The True, and The Beautiful, holding that these were the highest level things about which one could think. That which was Good was held to be True, the Truth was itself Beautiful, and Beauty was the physical reflection of The Good. Thus all three combined as the highest and best of the cosmos, those things about which we could and should truly concern ourselves.
Calling Jesus the Beautiful Shepherd makes sense then (there’s even a popular song about it), but does it change the way we understand who he is or what he does? A little bit yes and a little bit no.
You see, Jesus is still the Good Shepherd even when he is also the Beautiful one. What he does and who he is remains both Good and Beautiful so that part doesn’t change. Our understanding of beauty must however change if we are to take the rest of the passage seriously.
We have been taught to think of beauty as simply prettiness, as if the only point of beauty was to be appreciated by others. Yet beauty is a quality which shines through our being, showing forth what is intrinsically deep within ourselves. Thus Jesus’ beauty is actually his goodness shining into the world. And what is this goodness? Laying down life for ta idia.
We don’t really have this concept in English but ta idia means “one’s own.” It means more than “my stuff, my pile of objects” it means most deeply “the things which are proper to/part of my Self.” We handle this as “one’s own” but in the opening chapter of John the word is used to refer to the people of God. “He came to ta idia and ta idia knew him not” Jesus came to the people and the home which was his and was rejected as “not from these parts.”
Just as in the psalm where his rod and staff comfort, he prepares a table in the presence of our enemies, and is with us even in the valley of the shadow itself, so in this passage the beautiful shepherd faces up to the wolf. He does not flee the threat but stands up to it. Deep in the valley, with the wolf coming over the wall, with enemies around, Jesus lays down his life.
We are used to seeing this as “dying for” and that is certainly the big death we expect in the valley of the shadow, when the wolf comes, but this is not at all mandatory. Jesus can (and does) lay down life itself each day to us and for us. Jesus lays down life so we can live. He lays down life so we can take it up. He gives us the gift of life each morning and looks to hear each evening what we have done with this one wild and precious day.
Yes the beautiful shepherd laid down his life on the cross of us and received it back again but that can be called a one time thing. The truth however is that Jesus is always laying down life for us, just as a perfect parent lays down their life in big and little ways for their children, just as a lover lays down their life for their beloved, Jesus lays down his life for us each day. Our challenge then is seeing this life laid down for us and the beautiful shepherd who lays that life down in us in order to take us up again with him.