Summary: When scripture refers to people as sheep, it may not be a compliment. See how the good shepherd watches over us and cares for us even when our actions are senseless.
The Good Shepherd
March 30, 2014 Psalm 23
Rev. David J. Clark
Late in my first year of college, I was working on a Bible research paper about the 23rd Psalm. What is all of this shepherd imagery about? I learned about how the shepherd took care of the sheep and the green pastures meant that the sheep’s needs were always taken care of. Being led on the right paths means that if we follow God’s ways we are led away from the predators, such as the wolves of greed, envy, prejudice; the lions of fear that can destroy us from the inside. The rod and staff were ways of keeping the sheep in line and even the hook was used to save a sheep that got caught in the rocks. Shepherds led their flocks to high mesas called table rocks where they could look out for danger.
I learned that sheep are high maintenance creatures requiring constant evaluation for parasites and their wounds healed with oil. The Hebrew words for “follow me” at the end of the passage where it says, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” should be translated as something closer to “pursue” Surely, goodness and mercy shall pursue me like a predator to hunt me down. Will I allow God’s intentions of goodness for my life catch up to me or will I devise some means to sabotage the good that God has in store for me? After learning all this, I thought I had a good bead on the meaning of the psalm and how to apply it to everyday life.
I was just about ready to hit the print button on my paper when the phone rang. Someone at the college called saying I could earn some extra money shearing sheep. I explained that although I was from Iowa, I was a city kid, and, “I don’t know anything sheep shearing’. “It’s okay,” I was assured, “you will be working with a guy who has been shearing his whole life. He’ll teach you; just do what he says.”
Bright and early the next morning I showed up at the farm, and met Arthur. He was wearing bib overalls a seed corn cap and well-worn work boots--not nearly as fashionable as me in faded jeans; leather Nike tennis shoes, alligator/Izod polo shirt--with the hot 80’s look of an upturned collar and aviator sunglasses. He looked at me and just shook his head, as if he just realized he was going to have a very long and difficult day.
Basically, my job was to tackle the sheep. Arthur had a bad back so he needed me to round up the sheep and flip them on their backs. Now, I had always been under the impression that sheep were nice passive animals: cute, cuddly, noble creatures with an innate purity. It didn’t take long to figure out that my image was all wrong. During a Pepsi break, I shared with Arthur that I was coming to believe that when the Bible compares human beings to sheep, it isn’t exactly a compliment! Sheep are stupid. Arthur told me they could turn their head to look through a fence, and then not know to turn it back. They just sit there stuck and bleating away for help. Does the Bible mean to say that we are dumb—getting ourselves into awful fixes so we need a shepherd to help get us unstuck? Arthur just smiled.
And look at them. They just follow the pack, one will split off and everyone will just follow that one, then another without any real direction. Is that what it is about? We are too easily influenced by the pack, and don’t choose very wisely which direction we will head with our lives or whom we should follow? Arthur was a man of few words. He gave me the old farmer, Hmmmm.
Or maybe the Bible is picking up on their skittishness, or their stubbornness. The males could be aggressive. One sheep with a muzzle on it; he looked big as a polar bear. Arthur said that in his 60 years of shearing this by far was the biggest sheep he had ever seen. They called him Brutus; and he was chained to a post. Would the good shepherd muzzle one of the sheep? When all the other sheep had been sheared and Arthur said, “Go get Brutus.” I said, “Not for a measly $3.10 per hour I won’t.” I couldn’t believe it, but I was scared of a sheep.
Perhaps the good news of the passage is that no matter how bad, or stupid, or unruly, or obstinate we may be, we have a good shepherd. The farmer never criticized his sheep for acting like sheep. Maybe God doesn’t waste a lot of time blaming humans for acting human. It’s too bad people do, though. We have one who seeks to help us, to guide us, to give us direction, care, nurture and love. If the truth about my life is that I have a lot in common with a sheep, I find it reassuring that I have a shepherd that knows what to do. I thought I knew about shepherds from text books but I realized that I missed the important part when I watched Arthur with his sheep and how he could read their personalities and sense what each one needed. He could be firm and gentle at the same time.