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.
A 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.