The St. Louis Cardinals are different from the Roman Cardinals. The former are a baseball team and the latter are special bishops who are able to vote for the next pope. Asking, "are the Cardinals in town?" would have a different reference which was obvious in each place. The "obvious" is obvious to an insider. It is not obvious to an outsider. We are outsiders to much of the Bible; we have a different context.
When Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd" even in a sheep-free place like Memphis Tennessee we are able to make sense of it. We get it is not literal, it is figurative. It is not Jesus' His occupation, it is Jesus' true identity.
I often write about the limits of approaching the Bible only seeking the literal, plain meaning. I have rejected the concept that the symbolic is "merely/only" symbolic and a work of heretics and unbelievers. Today, at Bible study, it came up again. What we discussed in there may be helpful here.
Young children are concrete. They take things literally. If you say, "you are a pain in the neck," a young child thinks your neck is hurting. This is why children's books are simple and straight forward stories.
David ran into the house. David bumped into the table. The flowers fell over. "Oh, no!" said Mom. "Do not run."
The story is simple and easy to follow. However, after a number of years we are introduced to poetry. Many of us did not like poetry. We said things like, "why don't they just say what they mean?" We got frustrated because of the complexity of it all. Suddenly, "running in the house" may symbolize a freedom from rules which shackle the heart. Knocking over flowers may mean reworking the beliefs of one's childhood to prepare for a new opportunity. Mom may represent our fear to take a chance and try new things. Literature has value because the story can be representative and we can connect with the deeper meaning.
A single word can convey a host of meaning. The word 'Dachau,' for example, refers to a Nazi death camp. The word stirs up so much emotional meaning: it can be used to summarize great evil, or loss, or the extermination of something, someone. In other words, in the real world in which we live, the deeper, more adult way of communicating is symbolic. It takes intelligence to create and understand a simile, an analogy, or to use alliteration, rhyme, or other literary tools.
In the ancient world, the belief in Jewish circles and among early church teachers was that the symbolic (or spiritual) was deeper, more mysterious, and the more important repose of God's revelation. The literal, straightforward, simple reading was just that: simple. It was true, but the least important meaning of a text.
So when Jesus says, "I am the Good Shepherd," He is employing an analogy, a symbol. however, the simple image (care taker) is not necessarily the fullest meaning of His usage. It is helpful to read the books Jesus read to get sense for what He is referring to. Shepherds, in prophetic literature, are the Kings of the Jews. Kings.... "I am the Good Shepherd" is a political statement, sure it implies care taking and all that, but it is primarily a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah/Anointed One (true King). Face it, Jesus was not crucified from preaching love and healing the sick. On the cross it said "the King of the Jews." Jesus was killed (on the literal level) because the Romans recognized He was asserting His dominion over Caesar. Christ (christos = anointed) is attached to His name as a title for that reason.
God's Word has a depth to it because God is deeper than a second grade reader! There is a reason why revelation means 'unveiling" in Greek. What God reveals must be unveiled. Too often, adults, even very intelligent adults, act like 5 year olds when they read the Bible. We suspend all our intellectual function and pretend like what we know from real life does not apply to God. We are satisfied to read the Bible as if it were a second grade text book. In truth, the multi-layered, multi-valent word of Scripture is an invitation to enter the heart of God. We must understand what the ancient Christians (like Jesus, Paul and Peter) knew. There is more to revelation than meets the eye. Symbolism is not a lower form of truth. Who among us is disappointed to learn that Jesus did not work in a field with sheep? Isn't it better to understand the depth of meaning in the word, shepherd, and to understand Jesus calls us to covenant faithfulness with Him who is our King?
Reading the Bible, like reading poetry, is hard work. Yet, the reward of uncovering meaning is worth the struggle. After all, who worships a God who is limited to communicating on a second grade reading level?