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Like Sheep

A few Sundays ago, my daughter bought two little sheep. She needed these little beasts to provide companionship for her peculiarly needy horse who was losing her previous roommates to another pasture. My daughter’s horse has, in the past, demonstrated an affinity for sheep. She thinks they are her offspring or something. It’s strange. And strangely effective. A trip to the pasture these days consequently yields a fairly odd spectacle of symbiotic co-dependence on a number of levels, but as long as peace is preserved, I suppose it’s all good.

Sheep are interesting animals to observe in action. They are—I’m afraid there’s no delicate way to put this—extraordinarily stupid creatures. They run around apparently aimlessly and make a great deal of noise. They have a difficult time figuring out where water is, even if you try to lead them right to it. They panic easily and are helpless when separated from their companions. They seem perpetually disoriented. And, of course, sheep are incurable followers. They will trot on after each other brainlessly, even if following leads to great danger. I’ve heard stories of sheep dutifully following each other into a water-filled ditch where they all, inevitably, drowned. Impressive specimens, these sheep.

It is not terribly flattering then, that Jesus often compares us to sheep. We’d prefer other metaphors, thank you very much. Biblical designations like “image of God” or “steward of creation” or “a little lower than the angels,” perhaps, or other descriptors of our (surely) exalted and unique nature. Or maybe we could take the philosopher’s approach—we are “thinking things” or “rational animals,” to borrow a phrase from Aristotle. This sets us apart! Or, better yet, some combination of the above. When Jesus says that we are “like sheep” he is not exactly paying us a compliment.

And yet this image of human beings as sheep is stunningly accurate and descriptive in countless ways. We follow one another around in herds and bump into each other and make a great many messes. We bleat plaintively and make a lot of noise. We are confused and helpless in the face of our greatest threats.

Evidence of our sheep-likeness is not, regrettably, in short supply. We could look to the world of politics and, particularly, political “discourse.” Anyone who has the misfortune of observing the American political landscape over the past year or so will be well acquainted with the spectacle of the masses trotting angrily, confusedly, loudly after one another, compliantly standing and cheering the often-inane statements of their leader, their team, dutifully mocking and shouting down opposing voices.  Falling in line.

Here in Canada, we were yesterday treated to the sight of our prime minister physically manhandling some of his opponents on the house floor in an attempt to speed things along according to his preferences. It was fascinating to watch how his “sheep” behaved in response to his regrettable choice of actions. Both when he stampeded across the floor to take matters into his own hands and when he offered the first of what will undoubtedly be a wearisome string of grim-faced apologies for his behaviour, the MPs behind him stood and applauded the behaviour of their fearless leader. And of course the same script was being dutifully performed behind the other leaders of the other parliamentary sheep as they offered their (opportunistic) righteous outrage and condemnation. Stand, cheer, nod heads, pound tables… Yay for our team/leader/party! Hooray for right-thinking people like us!  Boo for the bad and stupid people!  Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum.

It’s easy to make fun of politicians, of course, and they supply us with endless ammunition. The same observations could be repeated in pretty much any domain of human interaction and discourse. The church, for example. Incredible as it might sound, [ahem], we’re pretty good at behaving in sheep-like ways, as well. Like politicians on the floor, we line up behind our preferred leaders, our preferred theologies, our preferred “positions” and those who espouse them. And we stand and cheer and pound on tables, shouting down those who disagree with us, mocking those who aren’t as “enlightened” or “spiritual” (or humble!) as we imagine ourselves to be.

And, of course it almost goes without saying that social media gives us a vast canvas upon which to express our sheep-itude. We drape ourselves with all that is right and true in the world in a flurry of “liking” and “reacting” and “sharing” and we cheer along with the correct-thinking herd within which we are pleased to locate ourselves. And then, in a last flourish of perverse irony, we re-frame all of the above as an expression of our individuality and obvious hard-won intelligence.  This, also, is what sheep in our time and place do.


IMG_6076A few months ago, during my time in Bethlehem and the West Bank, I visited an olive wood shop. There were all kinds of beautiful hand-made carvings that had been crafted by local artisans. There were crosses and scenes from Noah’s ark and Lions of Judah and camels and Marys and Josephs and Nativity scenes and all manner of other Christian imagery. They were all lovely and surely worthy of my shekels. But my attention was drawn right away to a carving of Jesus with a sheep over his shoulders. It is an image that it seems to me could contain the whole of Christian theology and much of my own experience with God. It conveys so much about who God is and about who we are.

I purchased the carving and it now sits on my desk, unavoidably, just to the left of my computer. It’s easy to look at this image and think of warm pastoral images of the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name, who runs, love-sick, after the one who got away. Lately, however, I’ve been looking at it a bit differently. I see myself in this helpless creature on Jesus’ shoulders—this creature that just can’t help but follow blindly along with the herd, getting itself into all manner of trouble. And I see in Jesus the patient and merciful shepherd determined to go to the ends of the earth to save us from the countless ways that we need saving from our sheepish selves.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Larraine #

    Thanks Ryan. A wonderful reflection that really illustrates how we like sheep go astray.
    Thank God for Jesus’ shoulders!

    May 19, 2016
    • Yes, thank God for those shoulders…

      May 20, 2016
  2. eengbrecht #

    Sheep are smarter than turkeys, hands down

    May 19, 2016
    • Some might locate politicians in both categories 🙂

      (Or pastors…)

      May 20, 2016
  3. Paul Johnston #

    An iconic Catholic image. Good, it’s a beginning. 🙂

    Simple creatures, loyal to a fault, good companions….with the right shepherd a worthy beast indeed. 🙂

    The Lord is at work in me. He asks me to see sin as he does….”Man, where are your accusers?”….”Neither do I accuse you”….”Go, and sin no more”… Accountability and repentance for us all, always. Served compassionately, mercifully, steeped in forgiveness.

    We are sheep. 🙂

    He is the Good Shepherd. 🙂

    May 20, 2016
  4. Paul Johnston #

    My Spirit is convicted that it is the end of times, yet Peter 2 resonates…”one day is like a thousand years”….”a thousand years like one day”….God transcends time….

    Orwell was right, “Big Brother” is here. What is social media today, will be the means by which we are controlled in the not too distant future. Huxley was right, it will be a corporate world order. We ( nation states) are not collectively bankrupt enough yet but it will happen. When the timing is right, nation states will fall like dominoes. A behind the scenes deal with Russian, American and Chinese military forces will have to be worked out, perhaps already is….

    Satan will lead, Satan will die. The objective will be to destroy as much of everything else as he can manage. Everything and everyone else, along with Himself, is His ambition. Death to everything.

    The time of the, “Great Commission” is drawing to a close. The, “Word” is everywhere. What is left for us now, for those who profess faith, is to live out our faith honestly.

    No more compromises, no more debates, no more finger pointing. No more, “Us”, no more, “Them”.

    Just, “WE”.

    We who follow Jesus. We who affirm and support one another on the same journey.

    It is time for us to live out our love for God and for one another. However many of us, however few.

    For good or for bad, we have done what we could do to create a universal church. It is time for whatever is His church, to simply just be His church. Humble, loving, joyful, praising His great and holy name. Serving one another as each has need.

    Our example is the only evangelical tool we have ever had.

    May 20, 2016
    • Very interesting to think about our present context in light of Orwell and Huxley. The latter, in particular, seemed prescient in countless ways—particularly in the ways in which we will be complicit in our own subservience.

      I echo your sentiments here:

      For good or for bad, we have done what we could do to create a universal church. It is time for whatever is His church, to simply just be His church. Humble, loving, joyful, praising His great and holy name. Serving one another as each has need.

      May 20, 2016
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Just some final thoughts here. I don’t see myself as some kind of Apocalyptic prophet, I simply share what I think to be of truth. I would also like to add the disclaimer that it is quite possible, though I honestly don’t think so, that I may be confusing my relatively impending, “end of time” with the worlds. If so I certainly wouldn’t be the first. 🙂

    I do think, right or wrong, that operating out of an, “end of times” ethos has a lot going for it. Time becomes precious. As do all the relationships and efforts we would direct our time towards.

    In a favorite record of my youth, the band, “Pink Floyd” used to sing the line, “shorter of breathe, one day closer to death”… I think they intended to reflect very fatalistic outlooks and apathetic outcomes…they were right about the physical impacts of time but they couldn’t have been more wrong about what a right response should be.

    Time is a great gift. An opportunity to love and be loved, every day. We waste so much of it. It is better for a person to recognize the truth of the end of time, theirs and others, so that they might make better, more loving use of the time they have.

    We must stay faithful. To God and to one another. In so doing we make treasure of the time we have now and if Scripture is to be believed, 🙂 make treasure for ourselves in heaven.

    Truth, love, compassion, mercy, joy, laughter, these are the eternal things. As is God. We can be a part of that eternity. It is God’s offer to us all. Have faith, live the values, help and be helped and in time the rewards are all ours to share.

    May 20, 2016
    • I appreciate your sharing here, Paul. You offer much wisdom. Your reflections on time, in particular—how we understand it and how we use it and to what ends—will have me thinking for a while. This, in particular:

      Time is a great gift. An opportunity to love and be loved, every day. We waste so much of it. It is better for a person to recognize the truth of the end of time, theirs and others, so that they might make better, more loving use of the time they have.

      Thank you.

      May 20, 2016
  6. A sheep that has been lost would not be a pleasant burden. Dirty from the places it has been walking and struggling through, soiled from fear and exhaustion, full of panic and needing to be held firmly – he’s got all four feet in his hands – but sensing the calming certainty of the shepherd who knows his way.
    And the shepherd too is tired and dirty and hungry and thirsty; he’s had to make sure the rest of the flock are safe before setting out to find the lost one. But none of any of that puts him off.
    That’s my Jesus.

    May 20, 2016

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