I know. We’re not in the right part of the state to be talking sheep. This is cattle country. However I refer to the sheep stories that Jesus uses as my defense. He used sheep to describe us. Before you feel insulted, let me tell you a story and after I am finished, let me know if you can identify with what I am about to say.
I lived among sheep and the ranchers who raised them during my time in Junction, Texas. Ranchers are smart people. One mark of this in that they know how to diversify. Some have Cattle, sheep, goats, pecan trees and other ways of making a living. So I learned something about the animals, something of their nature and how to work with them during my time there.
I remember the time I helped to heard sheep on horseback. Another time I worked with the two brothers, Art and Bill who were members of Trinity Church. We moved the flock of about 100 plus ewes into a large pen in order to get them prepared for black leg inoculations. This is where the plot thickened.
Art opened the gate to the inoculation pen. We had moved outside of the flock, arms extended to begin moving them into the inoculation pen. Art had opened an 10 foot wide gate for them to walk through. We had the flock ready to move over into the pen and they stopped moving. They became crowded. A few of them began to panic and jump up and land on other sheep. We backed up to relieve the pressure. Sheep will, when panicked, jump up in the air, land on other sheep, knocking them down, and they can be trampled to death.
What was even more fascinating is that the sheep could not find the fifteen foot wide opening to the adjacent pen. We moved forward, they panicked. We backed off they relaxed. They couldn’t find the opening when it was right there in front of them. Finally, Bill was able to make his way through the crowded bunch, take one sheep next to the open gap and toss it through the open gate. A few moments later, the other sheep began to follow into the pen.
I finally received my theological education in a sheep pen in Junction, Texas. I learned more about sheep and the gospel in a few hours than I did in my whole New Testament classes in seminary (which were excellent by the way). Now I knew why Jesus chose sheep as a metaphor to describe us. Can you make the connections?
Sheep are easy to herd and move. At the same time they can be easily spooked, become panicked and then react in ways that can hurt other members of the flock. Sheep easily take on a “mob mentality” where they are unable to function in ways that would be to their benefit. Remember “toilet paper” a just two months ago?
Sheep are notoriously near sighted. They can’t see things, like an open gate, which are right in front of them. They are behaviorally conditioned to “adhere” to the flock when in close quarters. How aware are we of our environment and others in it? How aware are we of ourselves?
Sheep are definitely a species that are influenced by their environment over the lack of ability to act from an inner source of reference. Sheep do have a “personality” of sorts and their will can be stubborn but they succumb to environmental stimulation. Sheep lack what is called a sense of individuation–identity. They lack the ability to differentiate from others in that they easily influenced and react to what is going around them. Sheep depend on the environment to maintain their sense of calm lacking the internal ability to deal with anxiety if danger arises. Sheep lack the ability to remain detached enough to be able to act in ways that would benefit them. Sheep add to anxiety in a group rather than knowing how to mitigate it for themselves and possibly others. They “take on” the energy of what is going on around them and react instead of being able to respond.
Sheep are also near-sighted, only being able to see what is right in front of them, lacking perspective of what is around them. It reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men were stationed around the elephant and asked to describe the elephant by what they could ascertain through touch. The elephant was defined in many ways, limited by the ability to see the whole picture. Human beings also struggle with seeing reality and often attempt to invent reality based on their own near-sighted perceptions. I have heard system theorists say that “perception is reality.” It is in the mind of the one’s perceptions but it’s often not reality because the ability to see the whole picture is lacking. Today, much research is directed to prove a certain desired outcome for a near sighted benefit instead of uncovering truth or a new mystery in God’s creation.
So even though we humans are more developed than sheep, we still have many characteristics of sheep and are often swayed by our environment instead of being able to differentiate our emotions and behavior from that of the environment.
It’s easy to understand why Jesus chose sheep to be a metaphor for the human condition. Jesus wasn’t insulting us, just telling us why we need him to become more than the Far Side cartoon I read years ago. A flock of sheep is gathered under a tree. A lone sheep is under the tree, standing on its hind legs, proclaiming to the flock, “We don’t have to be just sheep.” I think Jesus is telling us much the same thing. Sometimes we don’t like people or places or things because they remind us of ourselves. I wonder if sheep might fall into this category?
We may have characteristics of sheep but we are more than this–when we know who we are by Whose we are. It’s just when we think that we don’t need a shepherd that chaos begins. The Shepherd within keeps chaos at bay.
Baaaaa Baaaaa. Perhaps this is the sound of a sheep praying? Perhaps also a good example to follow. It can save us from ourselves and others pulling the wool over our own eyes.