I live in central Ohio and some people from places like New York and New Jersey think that we run cattle in the streets here in the heartland. The truth is that they don't even do that in the small towns much less major metropolitian areas like Columbus. So it is something of a quandry for me to try to understand and apply biblical teachings that lean heavily on rural culture and animal husbandry. And I believe the same is true for most everyone else in a modern society.
In fact I suspect that most of what most of us know about sheep and shepherding comes from ministers trying to make sense for us out of Jesus' references to the same. Jesus and his listeners had no such problem. The metaphors of sheep and shepherd came naturally and spoke to a common understanding among them of needs and roles in an agrarian society. The same was no doubt true for hearers for generations thereafter . But not for us. We need a modern metaphor for sheep and shepherding.
Jesus' sayings about shepherding are about servanthood. Not servitude but servanthood. Therein lies an important distinction. Jesus was not called to a life of servitude forced upon him but to a life of servanthood freely chosen. So to are we. The lesson to be learned from the shepherd is the meaning of service.
The closest animal experience to shepherding for most of us comes in the form of pets. While they depend on us for food, care and shelter we depend on them for companionship, attention and affection. While this is like the relationship between sheep and their shepherd it is also different. Pets are optional. Sheep are not. Sheep are more than a convenience. They are a way of life -- a source of clothing, food and trade. As a consequence the care of sheep is much more important to the shepherd than it is to the sheep. Only if we realize our emotional connection and its importance to our overall well being does the care of a pet begin to compare with the care of a shepherd.
Perhaps the more urbane of us can look to the instiutional "watch dogs" that safeguard our modern lives. Where does the term "watch dog" come from? In both rural and modern urban culture a watch dog is an animal relied upon to alert its master to threats -- one of which could be a preditor among the sheep. Llamas make really good "watch dogs" for sheep by the way because they hate canines. Canines from wolves and coyotes to feral dogs are the primary sheep preditors which seens odd to me since they are so often used in shepherding. Anyhow sometimes watch dogs are shepherds' assistants.
Called upon to think of modern "watch dogs" we might come up with a consumer protection agency or a bank auditor as examples. We have a better idea of what these are supposed to do than a shepherd. Unfortunately corporate corruption has tainted our image of auditing and its function of watching out for others and safeguarding their interests.
A better example is a policeman or a fireman. These are professions where people daily choose to be alert to danger and place themselves in its way for the sake of others. No less than life itself is at risk in such cases. Now that's more like a shepherd who we are told lays down his life for the sheep. Think of all those policemen and firemen who died on 9/11. They were our modern shepherds showing us how it's done.
And what of sheep?
Sheep are easily herded. For the shepherd this is an admirable quality because it makes them easy to control in large numbers. A herd of sheep seems not to know or care that they out number the shepherd and his dog (if he has one). They don't know that they could easily make a break for freedom by simply scattering and leave the shepherd empty-handed.
On the other hand following the herd causes problems because they are just as likely to docilely go into dangerous places together as into a safe sheepfold. Sheep in a herd can be oblivious to danger because they feel only the comfort and companionship of the herd. The shepherd's job is to make this illusion of safety a reality.
Sheep out of the herd are lost. Without the protection of the crowd they are subject to preditors, starvation and exposure to the elements. We might like to think that in this respect we are less like sheep. But the truth is we all live in crowded societies upon whose infrastructures and the cooperative nature of its members we depend. Outside of this social context most of us would be lost too.
Though we admire independence of thought and action we all learn to temper any we might possess in order to fit in and to get along. Encouraged to think for ourselves but sheepishly not to standout. In fact we need just enough and only enough independence to prevent our herd instinct from evolving into mob instinct -- mindless, unjust and arbitrary. Otherwise we may be content to unquestionningly enjoy the close comforts of our society.
Our independence must be measured in relative terms. Rare is the individual who needs no one. Rather we all need each other more or less. We are not loners or frontierspeople and there is little room or need to be in any case. We are sheepishly ambivalent -- loving the close comforts of our society and admiring the rugged individualism of other times, other places and other people. Often we don't want to be individuals as much as know that someone else once was and that therefore we too could be. Belonging takes precedence over becoming.
Sheep are not agressive and this makes them subject to agression. In a dangerous world, a world filled with aggression it is dangerous to be sheep. The common wisdom is that we need to be strong and take up our own defense, and even that a good offense is the best defense. But when a herd takes such advice how is it being less than a herd? Sheep follow their shepherd in part because they know the shepherd's voice. We too need to be discerning when we choose to follow any of the voices that loadly proclaim in which direction our safety lay.
Sheep may not be admirable animals. Perhaps not what we would save for their qualities. Most of us if we really knew sheep would save the sheep dog before we would save the sheep! Yet sheep are valuable to the shepherd. As valuable as life itself because they are life itself. From our worldly view point we may not be able to appreciate that value. But that does not mean it is not there.
We may not be worth
saving either. People we do not personally know, love or freely
with may not seem worthy of our concern. Disagreeable people,
people, arrogant people, mean people and careless people may not seem
count for much. Criminals, foreigners, lawyers and politicians
not be worth saving. Yet all in this human herd need shepherding.