Summary: When Jesus compares us to sheep, it may not be flattering, but it is apt.
Sheep don’t have a very good image, do they? If I asked what your favourite animal was, I doubt very much that any of you would say “sheep”. Our view of sheep is somewhat negative. We don’t say positive things like “Oh, he’s as strong as a sheep” or “She’s as wise as a sheep”. How about “as faithful as a sheep”? I don’t think so. “As cuddly as a sheep” – perhaps not! “As brave as a sheep” – definitely not!
We might, however, say “As silly as a sheep”. We might criticise others for being led into doing something foolish or dangerous or wrong, by saying that they had behaved like a sheep.
Perhaps sheep could use the services of a good public relations firm, because I’m sure you don’t need a city girl like me to tell you that sheep, for all their shortcomings, are very important and valuable animals. They were one of the first domesticated animals and have been important to mankind for centuries.
They provide wool to make into clothing and, to use modern jargon, this is a renewable resource – if you shear the sheep this year they will obligingly grow another fleece so that you can have more wool next year. They can provide milk which can be made into yoghurt, cheese, etc – another renewable resource. And ultimately, for the sheep at any rate, they provide meat.
Sheep can make use of much sparser pasture than cattle can and they are more able to cope with rough ground, because they are reasonably agile climbers. They were, therefore, well suited to the conditions in Israel and in Jesus’ time and, as most clothing was mad from wool, they were a very important source of wealth. To sum up, sheep are valuable, but rather stupid animals.
At home I have an 18th century commentary on the Gospels. I turned to the place which mentions the story of the lost sheep and it says “A sheep, once it has strayed away, is a creature remarkably stupid and heedless; it goes wandering on without any power or inclination to return back, though each moment it is in danger of becoming a sacrifice to every beast of prey that it meets.”
In other words, sheep are not very good at looking after themselves. They are not able to defend themselves and they haven’t the sense to go back to safety, but because sheep are valuable animals they have shepherds to look after them. In Jesus’ time the shepherd would have done a number of things. He led the sheep to fresh pastures and water to ensure that they had enough to eat and drink. He kept the flock together so that none got lost and eaten by predators or got stuck or trapped. He watched over the flock and tried to drive off any predators that came near.
Because of the importance of sheep, the Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds. The best known of all psalms must be “The Lord is my shepherd”. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.
It is perhaps not the most flattering thing in the world to be compared to a sheep, but, unfortunately, it is often all too appropriate. If we trust in God, He is the good shepherd who will provide for our needs – not just our physical needs for food, drink and shelter – but for our spiritual and emotional needs too.
Sheep wander away because basically they’re too stupid to realise the benefits of staying with the shepherd and being looked after. There’s always a bit of grass somewhere else that looks that bit greener than the grass in the pasture the shepherd has taken them to. We wander away because we, too, think we know better than God what is good for us.
Once the sheep has wandered away from the shepherd and from the flock, it’s on its own. If it falls and gets injured or trapped it will starve to death. It is also easy meat for predators and it has little or no defence against them.
What happens to us if we stray from God? What predators do we face? Out in the big, wide world lie lots and lots of temptation. Without God’s help and guidance and without the support of our fellow Christians, we, too, are easy meat. All those little temptations which we struggle with daily – the selfishness; the willingness to think the worst of others; the readiness the speak the worst of others; the little lies and exaggerations that are designed to make us look good and others look bad; the envy; the greed; the spite – all of these will overwhelm and devour us. Devour is the right word, because sin eats the souls, it destroys in us that part that is made in God’s image, it erodes in us the potential for perfection that God has created in all of us.