Jesus was a master of metaphor. His “I am the good shepherd” statement in John 10 is densely packed with layer upon layer of meaning that is as much about us as it is about Him. To announce oneself a shepherd, one implies there are sheep, and of course, the part of “the sheep” will be played by, um, us. And if by calling Himself the good shepherd Jesus was intending to communicate something about us (as well as about Himself), He couldn’t have made a more stunning comparison. Consider:
Sheep don’t just take care of themselves.
Sheep require vast amounts of attention and care if they are to thrive.
They do not instinctively do what is good for them. They often do the exact opposite.
They don’t do well in isolation. They are social creatures. They seem even in groups to develop friendships.
They can recognize faces and they learn voices.
Sheep are creatures of habit…good and bad.
They are prone to stubbornness.
They indulge in a wide variety of perverse practices.
And they can succumb to mob mentality.
Any of that sound familiar? Uncomfortably. But Jesus wasn’t the first to liken us to sheep. The shepherd and sheep motif is woven throughout scripture so it’s an important one to understand, especially with regard to one thought: sheep go astray. Verse after verse in the Old Testament give voice to both the laments of the shepherd:
“My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).
…and the penitent admission of the sheep:
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
It’s no great secret. We wander. We know it. God knows it. But why? Why do sheep go astray? The people who care for sheep report a few reasons which bring even more application to the table:
Lack of good pasture will cause a sheep to wander. If there is nothing to feed on, they will wander far and wide to find sustenance. Even with the best fencing, leave them in a place without something to graze or chew and they will eventually find a way out and wander off in search of greener pastures.
Distraction will do it. It sounds silly, but a sheep can become distracted even by grazing and soon be far from the group. An intently grazing sheep may graze itself right into a muddy bog, or an entangling patch of thorny bushes, or it might graze itself right off a cliff because it was distracted!
Fear. Researchers and shepherds both tell us that sheep only appear stupid because they are afraid of nearly everything. Add to this a rather well-developed tendency to panic and you see where this is going. Ironically, their fears, real or exaggerated, left unaddressed usually lead them away from safety and right into dangers of all kinds.
When a sheep goes astray there is a high likelihood that it will get lost. To a shepherd, there is no greater tragedy than a lost sheep because a lost sheep is as good as dead, and to a shepherd, a dead sheep is a loss indeed.
But worse than wandering away, sheep can be led astray. Unlike cattle and other livestock that are driven by their handlers, sheep are designed to follow; it is in their nature to be led. That said, we must accept that they can be misled. If they don’t know the right voice to follow, their shepherd’s voice, they will very possibly follow the wrong one, usually to their demise.
But for all the negatives involved with being prone to wander or getting lost or being mis-lead-able, having the capacity to be led, means sheep can develop something rare and beautiful in the animal kingdom: a relationship with their shepherd. Perhaps this is the comparison God truly had in mind when He called us sheep. Not because we can be difficult and prone to bad habits, but because we are capable of relating to him. Not because we are dumb, but because we are dearly loved.
All we need is the Good Shepherd.