Updated: Jan 16
There’s been a new insult flying around the internet this year: Sheep. It’s become a particularly vicious thing to call someone who believes in instructions or ideology that you don’t believe in. You can be a sheep if you believe the main-steam media. A sheep if you follow CDC guidelines and wear a mask. A sheep if you believe the claims of a politician.
So, here’s an odd thing to think about: Jesus called us sheep, too. And to him, it wasn’t an insult, but a term of affection.
As I watched the news unfold last week – and I admit, I watched a LOT of news last week – God whispered a verse to me.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36
And I thought how very fascinating that Christ would look on the people of Israel like this. Why were they so confused and lost? These were the chosen people of God, the ones who had been given the revelation of the Scriptures, the law, the prophets, the wisdom Proverbs, and the Psalms. They shouldn’t have felt harassed and helpless, but confident, empowered, and difficult to deceive.
And yet, Israel also was a troubled and polarized nation. They were under oppression from the Roman empire and heavily taxed. Some Jews – the Zealots -- believed in forcibly overthrowing Rome. Some supported the king and believed in a kind of compromise, or even corruption, in order to keep peace. The people were also under spiritual oppression, heavily influenced by legalistic religious leaders that demanded rigorous obedience to their own laws. The religious leaders were also divided: Pharisees and Sadducees were constantly debating points of the law and whether or not the after-life existed. And the people struggled with poverty, illness, and insecurity.
Do you see the parallels to 2020?
In ancient Israel, Jesus was overwhelmed with compassion for the crowds, and wanted not just to lead them into truth, rest and freedom, but most importantly into relationship with him personally.
Watching the news, tears running down my cheeks, I sensed that Jesus’ desire has not changed one bit.
The common belief about sheep is that they are stupid. As a mob, they will run straight into danger without the shepherd’s intervention. But years ago, I learned from author Margaret Feinberg’s book, Scouting the Divine that stupid is not their primary characteristic. First and foremost, they are helpless (sheep don’t have a lot of fight skills); secondly, they are relational. After spending time with shepherds, Feinberg learned the important truth that sheep bond with their leader, and that bond is what keeps them safe.
Her research and my own search of the scriptures revealed this to me: All human beings are sheep. We are looking for a leader to love us and bond with us; we are in need of something greater than ourselves to give us purpose and protection. Without a good shepherd, we are helpless to defend ourselves. We are vulnerable to deception. We will join a directionless mob. We will wonder and get lost.
“How did we get here?” is the cry of many in our nation, myself included.
I hate to alienate any of you with being “too political,” but I want to say something that’s occurred to me this week. We got here in part because Donald Trump was/is a powerful shepherd. He does not just make policies and stand for them. He seeks to bond relationally with the people that follow him, to speak a language that they will relate to, to affirm them, even to give them love and value. Many people on the fridge felt he brought them into the fold. After the riot at the capital, he addressed the crowds and said he felt their pain, that they were special, that he loved them.
This is what we all need from our shepherd. Because we are sheep. All the greatest leaders (and by great I don’t mean morally great, but great in influence) did this in some way, from Napoleon to JFK to Hitler, to Democratic Representative AOC. Believe me when I say this, this blog is not intended as a dig on Trump. On both sides of the political spectrum, we have leaders vying for the position of shepherd in our lives. The offer of empathy, value and love is irresistible to us, because it’s what we were made to desire. Christian teachers will often say we were made to worship and will worship something, whether it’s God or not. But we are also made to follow, to be lead, and to be loved.
So, we better make sure that we pick a good shepherd. Because following a bad shepherd is dangerous. For my part, the most disturbing thing about the last year is how devoted Christians have gotten to shepherds that aren't Jesus.
Here’s what Jesus said about himself in John chapter 10:
Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus is not a narcissist. He’s not power-hungry. He’s not in an ivory tower. He’s not angry. He’s not manipulative. His loyalties are not fickle. Jesus is not violent. He doesn’t promote hatred. He doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t value law over grace. Jesus is kind and compassionate. He is gentle and humble. He always tells the truth. And most remarkable, Jesus does not preserve himself. No, Jesus lays down his life to protect those who trust him. He will die before he will let someone kill his sheep.
So, the Lord is my shepherd. And I need one. No worldly leader, left or right, will ever take the place of Jesus. I want to grow in my ability to hear and recognize his voice, so that I will not follow a stranger, or another sheep that has been deceived. It’s not that I’m stupid, it’s that I’m made to be led. So I have to pick a good leader.
As Christians, how did we get here? Well, we have division, oppression, illness and economic insecurity. We are afraid. Our Christian leaders don’t all agree. We’ve lost trust in our media sources. Social media has given platform to all kinds of crazy – but persuasive – voices.
So, this year, my friends, pick your shepherd, because lots of voices are vying for your attention. Practice listening to his voice. Join in his mission, which is, to find “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen,” Jesus says. “I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10: 16)
And when someone calls you a sheep, remember that your shepherd loves you, made you, lays down his life for you. And take it as a compliment.