From: Pete Williamson
Growing up in New Zealand, the fact that the Bible is full of metaphors about sheep and shepherds seemed almost expected. The biblical authors were just using a common part of life and agriculture for a relevant metaphor. I mean, sheep are everywhere, right?
Writing this reflection is basically an excuse for me to spout a bunch of New Zealand sheep facts and experiences: NZ has 260 sheep per square mile (USA has 1.4). NZ has 6 sheep per person - down from over 20 when I was little (USA has 61 people per sheep!). One very real part of driving in New Zealand is learning to drive through a flock of sheep. New Zealand dominates the global competitive sheep-shearing scene. There probably isn’t another country which so identifies itself culturally with sheep in its art and media.
I grew up in towns and cities, but it was still commonplace for trucks full of sheep to drive down the road, and sheep lined the roads when driving on the highway. In fact, perhaps one of my most quintessentially kiwi experiences was when I was studying in my dorm room in college, and I heard bleating out my window. I look up, and lo-and-behold, a sheep was staring me in the eye. At that moment, I knew that it was going to be a good day. Friends gathered around, stopped pretending to study, and began to try to entertain the sheep; to corral her further into the dorm courtyard; to see if she’d enter our dorm room; to watch her eat from the trash. She even tried to charge one of my friends. This experience was documented. That was not a very productive time, but after a while the farmer came walking up the hill and recovered his wayward sheep. This sheep had jumped off the back of a truck.
Anyway, since moving to the states, I read the sheep/shepherd metaphors a little differently. Sheep don’t seem so commonplace, so it seems a little bit more oddly specific. Like, of all the aspects of life, why would the biblical authors dial down into this one element of society.
Today’s psalm, Psalm 23 is probably the most famous psalm. The psalmist – traditionally understood to be David – is describing his relationship with God from the perspective of a sheep looking to their shepherd. Primarily, David is looking to how the shepherd keeps him safe in the midst of danger and leads him to places of peace and plenty. As we watch this interaction between David – who was a shepherd – and his God, I’m drawn to another passage of Scripture, Ezekiel 34. In this passage, God is condemning Israel’s shepherds (a figure for their leaders), because instead of protecting their sheep, they are eating them; destroying them. In response, God declares that he will be the shepherd himself (v15), but within 8 verses, he is declaring that David will be the one shepherd (v23). How can the shepherd be both God and David? We know that this is pointing to Jesus. He is both God and the King in David’s line. In John 10, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Jesus is the heart of this metaphor, specifically on this point: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Sheep are so helpless. So foolish. So lacking in the ability to make good decisions for themselves. They’ll just jump off moving trucks, thinking that if they can just find a bunch of college students then they’ll be happy, but they’ll end up an object of amusement eating trash.* But the good shepherd will come and find them, no matter how far they stray.** Sheep are good at following; at going with the flow. That means that their livelihood is very dependent on who they’re following. One of the reasons why this metaphor is so prevalent in Scripture is because it so accurately portrays our position relative to God. Without a shepherd, sheep have no hope. This imagery is in total opposition to the prevailing narrative of our culture which calls on us to save ourselves. By meditating on this image – as the psalmist does – we are made aware of the futility of trying to save ourselves, while being pointed to the one who will recover his wayward sheep. There’s no limit to how far the shepherd will go for his sheep, even at the cost of his own life. Our job as sheep is not to try to figure out where to go and how, but to look to the shepherd.
*Okay, I realize I’m taking my metaphor too far, but I’m enjoying myself.
**I also invite you to ignore the fact that, in the case of my story, the farmer was probably taking the sheep to a slaughterhouse.
This reflection is bought to you by me because I accidentally read my wife Kelly’s calendar and mistakenly wrote my wife’s reflection. I'm a deacon at CotC, work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and have a one-year-old, Malachi, and a dog, Wicket.