In Praise of Sheep
I keep coming across Bible readings relating to sheep: Last week there was Peter feeding sheep and lambs (John 21), this week Jesus is the shepherd and his sheep know his voice (John 10.22-30), indeed Jesus uses this idea of a shepherd and sheep more times than I can count. All of these stories made me think back to my experiences of sheep on the North York Moors.
I remember camping there as a boy and being woken up just after light. There was a rustling sound, a tugging sound and a tearing sound. It was from the store tent (this was a Scout camp). I dashed out thinking another troupe were raiding our food. There was indeed a raid going on but it was sheep not rival scouts! One sheep was right inside the store tent with only it’s backside sticking out. I grabbed the woolly behind and pulled – No need – the startled animal bolted in shock and knocked me flying. I’d never really noticed how big and strong a sheep actually is. Flat on my back I looked up and saw the sheep heading for the hills… with our bacon in its mouth!
Sheep are supposed to be vegetarian but I can tell you they love bacon. This sheep had smelt the bacon, forced and ripped its way into our store tent then, somehow, it forced open the cool box and the sealed container with the bacon.
I was impressed. That sheep had strength I’d never guessed, not to mention the determination to get into a sealed tent and the intelligence to get a sealed container open with only teeth and hooves. I have never looked at those walking carpets the same way again!
Before that event I had always thought of sheep as meat and wool factories, nothing more. I now recognised them for the living creatures that they are. I also realised that some of them at least are nowhere near as stupid as I had thought them to be. To be called ‘a sheep’ is an insult. It means being too stupid or lazy to think. It means being part of a mindless crowd heading meekly wherever, without ever questioning why, or even who was doing the leading.
Now I realised something very different: Sheep learned to stick together and followed leaders because that is the intelligent thing to do when all the predators around you see you as a walking meal! So if one sheep starts running it probably means that it has seen a threat, waiting to see for yourself could mean being dinner for a wolf; so any bright sheep is going to run too. There is also strength in numbers. I know how strong that domestic sheep was, I can only imagine how intimidating a wall of wild sheep with horns lowered must have been.
Later I learned that shepherds in the Middle East lead their sheep rather than drive them with dogs. They spend so much time with their sheep that the sheep know their voice and will follow them. Those sheep have learned that they can trust their shepherd. They have learned that they are safe with him but in danger if they wander off. They are wise to stay close.
So I now don’t mind to be called a sheep, so long as I’m one of Jesus’ sheep. That last bit for me is all important. You see it is only bright for a sheep to follow a shepherd if that shepherd can be trusted. That is the problem. I can think of no person that is right all of the time. Indeed, I think that it is impossible for anyone but Jesus to be perfect here on this earth. Jesus is the only shepherd that I can trust enough to follow blindly, wherever he will lead. I have got to know this Shepherd and to trust him. I’m learning to recognise his voice too and starting, just starting, to wander off a little less.