I’m not an expert in the psychology of sheep (I don’t imagine there are many scholarly tomes on the subject). Some say they are capable of joy; lambs run and frolic like they’re on caffeine. But are they capable of boredom instead? Sheep can experience fear, as suggested by Psalm 23. But are they capable of anxiety? After all, it’s one thing to be afraid of the wolf that’s attacking you now, but it’s another to get anxious imagining the wolf that might attack you tomorrow.
I suspect you have to be human to lose sleep over hypothetical wolves. Score one for the sheep.
. . .
In previous posts, we’ve been taking a close look at the 23rd Psalm, the beloved Shepherd Psalm. “The LORD is my shepherd,” writes the psalmist. And when we as Christians read or recite those words, we should remember how Jesus took the metaphor of the shepherd to himself.
In John’s gospel, Jesus uttered seven famous “I Am” sayings, each thought to have taught his hearers something about God by echoing the divine name. In John 10, Jesus says both that he is the “gate of the sheep” (vs. 7) and the “good shepherd” (vss. 11, 14). He describes a situation that would have been well-known to his hearers: a sheep pen in which different flocks may be temporarily intermingled. How do you sort out which sheep belong to which flock?
Simple. If a shepherd has established a relationship to the flock under his care, they will recognize his face and voice. They trust him. When he enters the pen and calls to his sheep, they follow without question. The other sheep, however, to whom the shepherd is a stranger, will stay put.
There’s more to what Jesus says in John 10, of course. But let’s stay with the image of the sheep following the shepherd. When the shepherd enters the pen, there’s no conversation or negotiation. The sheep don’t ask, “Where are we going?” None of them bleat, “But I want to stay here.” And as the flock follows the shepherd along the road, they don’t whine, “Are we there yet?” They don’t even know where “there” is. They simply act with the implicit trust that the shepherd won’t lead them astray.
Not even if he leads them through the darkest of valleys (Ps 23:4).
. . .
Follow me, God said to Abram, birthing a people, and launching a centuries-long adventure. Abram didn’t ask where, specifically, God was leading him (Heb 11:8); he simply trusted God’s promise, packed up everything, and went. He eventually was blessed to see the Promised Land, but only as someone passing through. He might well have asked plaintively, “Are we there yet?” We’d understand. But instead, he is remembered for going to his grave as a man of faith despite the unfulfilled promise (Heb 11:9-10, 39).
Follow me, Jesus said to his disciples. If they asked “Where are we going?” the gospel writers don’t say. The disciples simply left their nets and followed him. As heirs of Abraham’s story, as heirs of the promise, they too were looking for the fulfillment of their destiny. When Jesus was crucified, they thought everything was lost. When Jesus rose again and gave them a 40-day advanced course in God’s kingdom (Acts 1:3), they thought all had been fulfilled. “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” they asked eagerly (Acts 1:6, NRSV). Are we there yet?
Jesus’ answer, in essence, is, “You’re not done following me yet.”
. . .
“The LORD is my shepherd,” wrote the psalmist (Ps 23:1). Jesus later confirmed what the people already knew: a good shepherd doesn’t run away when wolves threaten, but stands his ground and fights for the sheep. In fact, Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In saying this, Jesus seemed to take to himself an ancient prophecy: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).
Think about it. A sheep who strays in disobedience to the shepherd puts the whole flock at risk if trouble strikes. A harried shepherd would be justified in saying, “I’ve tried everything to get Shaun to stay with the flock, but he just won’t listen. Well, I’ve got to protect the rest of the flock. If the wolf gets him, that’s on him.”
But Jesus suggests that the good shepherd even sacrifices himself for Shaun.
And Isaiah adds, We’re all Shauns. You, me, the whole flock.
The good shepherd sacrifices himself for us. What shall we do in response, except follow wherever he leads?