Given the way they’re depicted in our culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that sheep aren’t all that bright. I know several folks who, when wanting to emphasize the propensity people have to go with the flow and fall in line, uses the term “sheeple” to describe them. The meaning is clear: these folks can’t think for themselves, they just follow the crowd. During the Super Bowl, Hyundai put out an ad that was based on this idea, showing sheep driving several non-descript, boring cars, with the message flashing up “Maybe car companies keep making boring cars because people keep buying them.”
To be fair, this is some reason for this perception. Several years ago there was a strange event in Turkey where several hundred sheep plunged off a cliff while the shepherds in charge of the flocks were having breakfast. Evidently something spooked them and one or a handful started running and ran right over the edge of the cliff, with the others following suit. The first to go over obviously died. The ones that brought up the rear had their falls cushioned by their fluffy compatriots and many of them survived. No one’s quite sure what inspired the hysteria, but it happened nonetheless.
I’ve also heard that a flock, once spooked, will sometimes run in a circle, coming back to the same area. So there are are some reasons for this perception, as I said. But is it really fair to say that sheep are stupid because of this behavior? Because of what they do when they’re frightened and feel threatened?
Because of this negative perception of sheep, comparing people to sheep is necessarily seen as an insult. Sheeple. Thoughtless. Spineless. We even see this view abroad in the Church, as we hear clergy and church leaders talk about “sheep stealing,” as though lay people were incapable of making informed decisions, and are simply awaiting the latest snake-oil salesman.
If this is what we think of sheep: that they mindlessly follow and don’t think for themselves, then what are we to make of the numerous times that Jesus compares his followers–indeed, the whole people of Israel–to sheep? Not only that, but Jesus is picking up on a whole history of identifying the people of God with sheep. Was this intended as an insult? Is God calling his people, sheeple?
I don’t think so. And it’s not because God doesn’t call people names (cf. Ex. 32:9), and it’s not because sheep and humans share no negative characteristics (cf. Isaiah, “all we like sheep have gone astray.” Sheep have a bad habit of wondering off, just like us–metaphorically). In this case, it’s because Jesus refers to sheep positively. There’s another side to the sheep metaphor. Sure, sheep can get confused, but they’re actually pretty smart . And they’re very loyal. Recent studies have shown, for example, that sheep have fairly advanced problem solving capabilities, along the line of monkeys (read more). Other studies suggest that they have the ability to recognize one another’s faces and that they can remember friends for years. More relevant for our purposes, sheep can recognize the voice of their shepherd. This final fact is something the shepherds have known for thousands of years as their flocks have mingled in pens at night for protection, only to be separated again in the morning by nothing less than the sound of their shepherd’s voice.
In John 10, Jesus states that he is both the gate through which people must go to gain access to the sheep, and through which the sheep move, and the Good Shepherd whom the sheep will follow. The Good Shepherd is the one who lays his life down for the sheep. The word that’s translated “good” in this phrase has more nuance than the word would indicate. It means something more like “noble” and was also used in reference to soldiers who had given up their lives in defense of their cities, those who died virtuously and who were undefeated in death (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version, p. 1899, New Testament). Considered in this way, the title becomes a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, by which he leads his people through death and into life.
Thinking of Christ as the gate provides other challenges. Some commentators mention a pastoral practice in the Near East in which a shepherd would lay across the opening of the sheep pen, thereby becoming “gate” as well as shepherd (“The Gospel of John,” Sacra Pagina v. 4, p. 309). Regardless, the imagery of the gate is not so difficult to deal with upon reflection. Through this language Jesus is laying claim to his special status as the promised shepherd of the sheep, sent from the Father to guide and protect his people. Those who would lead the flock must always and can only enter (attain legitimate leadership) through the imitation of Christ, and through recognition of his divine authority, i.e. that he is Lord. The second meaning of this terminology seems to be indicative of the role that imitation of Christ and following his ways will have in the life of the believer. Christ is concerned for the protection of his people (of us) both within the sheepfold (defense from liars and thieves) and outside (wolves). Our protection–or rather, our salvation–is in Christ.
From day to day the reality of this salvation is borne out in the distinction Jesus makes at the end of the Gospel selection for today (John 10:1-10), in which he says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Jesus calls us to abundant life. Unlike those who attempt to influence others for their own gain, Christ commands our allegiance because he sacrificed everything for us, to reconcile us to God and one another.
So perhaps, in the end, we do resemble sheep in some of the negative ways, as well as the positive. As human beings we easily become distracted from what we ought to do, or fixated on things that are harmful for us. We may wonder off and find ourselves in danger, or try to escape a bad situation only to find ourselves circling back around to where it all began. But when we follow Christ, when we listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd and hear him call us each by name, then we can recognize how apt a description it is, as we discover that our safety and our strength lies in supporting one another, and most importantly, listening to and following Jesus.
While we don’t often have a chance to say the Jubilate (Psalm 100) together, as it is often used as the invitatory psalm in Morning Prayer, I’d like to invite everyone to say (or read, in the case of the blog) the following canticle:
Jubilate Psalm 100
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; *
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.
Know this: The Lord himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age. (BCP 1979)