Shepherds & Sheep

Jesus picks up on the Biblical metaphor of shepherds and sheep for the leaders of God’s people and God’s people.  It’s a rich metaphor for its time, but one that struggles I think to be understood clearly in a modern, non-agrarian context.  I think the struggle is there for both pastors/shepherds and parishioners/sheep.

But at the heart of this metaphor is the idea that shepherds and sheep are not the same in some important regards.  Like any metaphor it breaks down at one level or another, because shepherds are also sheep.  But they aren’t supposed to sheep alongside their parishioners.  Somehow, without ever forgetting their own sheep-ness, shepherds are called to remain separate and distinct.

Of course this is difficult and can be done badly.  Some shepherds interpret this as license to impose their will on the sheep, and that can lead to bad situations and lost or damaged sheep.  Modern sheep, who are far less likely to identify with this metaphor, may object to the idea of a shepherd who exercises real and actual authority that is different and distinct from all other forms of authority they encounter.  This is not the voice of the policeman or the judge or the supervisor at work.  This is the voice – hopefully – of Christ, guiding and leading and watching over the sheep.  I tend to think that sheep in Jesus’ day had just as much difficulty accepting that this is the shepherd’s job as modern sheep do.  I imagine just as much offense was taken back then as is apt to be today.  But perhaps not.

The fact that shepherds and their flock spend a lot of time together can lead a shepherd to forgetting that he’s a shepherd, and thus may begin to think of himself as just another one of the sheep.  The sheep that preaches, but no more than this.  And as a sheep the shepherd wants to get along and be liked by the other sheep, and so the concerns of the sheep gradually become the concerns of the shepherd, and it is easy to just go about the days and years nibbling on the grass with the other sheep, basking happily in the good graces of a loving Father who provides so richly for us.

Shepherds, unlike most sheep, should spend some of their time in the company of other shepherds.  Trading stories and information.  Sometimes the stories are humorous at the expense of the sheep, but in my experience sheep have a few favorite humorous stories they like to tell each other about their shepherds as well.  But mostly the shepherds should be talking about what they see.  A pack of wolves that has moved into a certain area and will require diligence for.  Rockslides that have rendered certain passes now inaccessible.  Predictions of harsh weather that could harm the sheep as well as the shepherds.  Hopefully shepherds are spending time with other shepherds – some older and wiser and some younger and less experienced – so that all benefit from the shared wisdom and perspective.

Because the concerns of the sheep and the shepherd are two different things.  The sheep are concerned with eating.  Mating.  Caring for their young.  The shepherd is there to lead and guide and protect.  To be scanning the horizon rather than grazing on the grass and seeing nothing more than the few inches in front of his face.  The shepherd should know that there are predators about, eager for an easy lunch.  He has to be on watch and on guard against these threats to the sheep, as the sheep may not see or recognize them.  The shepherd is to watch for the sheep that wanders off and risks getting themselves into trouble.  This can be exasperating work as some  sheep naturally prefer to be off on their own, left to their own devices, and are not terribly thrilled about the shepherd’s visit or staff that seeks to draw them back in to the flock.  And the shepherd also needs to watch the pasture, to ensure that the sheep are not grazing it too completely and thoroughly, so that the grass won’t grow back in a few weeks or next season.  His job is to move the flock along as necessary to ensure health and safety in the long term as well as the short term.

Again, this is sometimes difficult work.  Sheep by nature tend towards inertia, staying where they are and nibbling in a small area.  Why quit nibbling the grass here that has been so delicious and nutritious for so  long?  Why push us to stretch our muscles and walk and climb?  What if the next pasture isn’t as good as this one?  Why can’t we just stay here?

The shepherd can’t explain himself to the sheep.  He simply calls.  Seeks to prod as necessary.  And because shepherds (unless he is The Good Shepherd) are by nature of limited capacity, when sheep set their minds to bolt and stray, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done about it without endangering the entire flock.  If there is time and ability the shepherd  can and should pursue, but some sheep are going to get away, and the shepherd can only hope and pray that they will find their way safely back to the flock, or perhaps to another shepherd.

At times it is necessary for the shepherd to say and do things that the sheep don’t understand or appreciate.  There are of course times when this is a genuinely bad course of action by a misguided or even malicious shepherd.  But most of the time, it should be the necessary calling and prodding and reigning in of the sheep for their own good, as well as for the good of the pasture and the area as a whole.  That’s the job of the shepherd, to the best of his ability.  When the shepherd and sheep can work together, that’s the best possible situation, as the sheep need a shepherd and the shepherd needs sheep.

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