I’ve always been challenged by the lectionary readings for this Sunday. Although both Psalm 23 and John refer to Jesus the Shepherd and us as sheep, I live in New York City, and as far as I can tell, even the Sheep Meadow in Central Park has no sheep. Yet we sing Psalm 23 each year on this Sunday and at countless other times in convalescent homes and at gravesides. We claim “the Lord is my shepherd” often—and not only in the poetry of this psalm.

It’s an enduring image, one that’s been captured perhaps millions of times in our art, our liturgy, our stories. Why? For one thing, the image is used throughout scripture, not just in the Psalms and in John.

Yahweh is a shepherd who leads Israel like a flock. Jacob gave praise to the God who shepherded him (Gen. 48). This Shepherd-God led the enslaved out of Egypt and guided them in the wilderness (Ps. 78). Ezekiel, contrasting the faithfulness of God with the leaders who forsook the exiles when Israel was laid waste and thousands were deported, proclaims God’s promise: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed . . . bind up the injured . . . strengthen the weak”—which is exactly what God did, unlike the rulers, the “killer shepherds” who fed themselves, exploited the sheep and deserted the flock (Ezek. 34).