Sheepish

I hate feeling sheepish. I work at getting things right, and hate it when I get something wrong, especially when it involves other people. It’s embarrassing.

I don’t suppose sheep feel the same way? Oops — sorry, Curly. My baaaaaaad…

Sheep have a reputation for stupidity. When we say people are like sheep, we mean that they follow others passively, mindlessly, even to their own destruction. Witness, for example, the use of so-called “Judas goats” to lead sheep to slaughter. A goat is trained to insinuate itself into the good graces of a flock. At the proper time, the traitor leads them into the slaughterhouse. The sheep follow willingly and unwittingly to their doom, while the goat is spared to do his dirty work again.

But sheep deserve more credit. They’re actually more intelligent and complicated creatures than they may seem. They appear to have emotions. They can show loyalty to each other. They can be better at remembering human faces than humans themselves are.

That’s why there are two sides to the biblical metaphor of being a sheep. True, sheep do have a capacity for waywardness, for following their appetites. “All we like sheep have gone astray,” wrote the prophet Isaiah; “we have all turned to our own way” (Isa 53:6a, NRSV).

But they can also form a trusting relationship with a shepherd. And the question is, if we want to understand what it means to call the Lord our Shepherd, are we willing to admit that we ourselves are sheep?

. . .

Thus far in our study of the Psalms, we’ve been trying to enter into the positive side of how the psalmists understand the life of faith. We’ve seen, for example, creation psalms that celebrate God’s attentiveness to and care for human beings.

Nowhere is that care more tenderly and poignantly described than in Psalm 23, the so-called “Shepherd Psalm,” perhaps the most beloved and best known all the poems in the collection. If we’ve memorized the psalm, it was probably in the familiar and lyric language of the King James Version:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm is frequently recited aloud at memorial services, because of its comforting imagery of tranquil green pastures being enjoyed forever. But death is not the only dark valley that we or the psalmist face, and the psalmist’s gratitude is expressed for God’s comfort and mercy in this lifetime.

Psalm 23, as we will see, teaches us what it means to call God our Shepherd now, today, in the midst of our challenges. And as we examine the psalm together, I would ask you to keep this question in the back of your mind: If I want to know God as my Shepherd, am I willing to admit my sheepishness?

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