I love metaphor and Jesus was simply a master of it. His statement in John 10, I AM the Good Shepherd, is densely packed with layer upon layer of meaning that is as much about us as it is about Him. To announce oneself a shepherd implies there are sheep, and of course, the part of “the sheep” will be played by, um, us. And if by speaking in metaphor Jesus was intending to communicate some things about us (as well as about Himself), He couldn’t have painted a better picture. Consider:
Sheep require vast amounts of attention and care if they are to flourish. They don’t just take care of themselves.
They do not instinctively do what is good for them. They often do the exact opposite.
They don’t do well in isolation. They are social creatures. They seem even in groups to develop friendships.
Researchers tell us they can recognize faces and they learn voices.
Sheep are creatures of habit…good and bad.
They are prone to stubbornness.
They indulge in a wide variety of perverse practices.
And they can succumb to mob mentality. (Case in point: while shepherds in Eastern Turkey were busy and distracted with their breakfast, one sheep stirred up hundreds of others and led the mob right off a cliff falling 50 feet to their death. That was a very bad case of mob mentality and a very bad day for those shepherds.)
Plenty of real world research, observation, and experience, have made these things clear, just ask any sheep rancher. They will have plenty of stories that confirm it all. But likening people to sheep is actually an ancient notion, a biblical notion, and the Bible has quite a lot to say about sheep. A lot.
The shepherd/sheep metaphor (using the physical to explain the spiritual) is woven throughout Scripture so it’s an important one to understand, especially with regard to one thought: sheep go astray. And there is no greater tragedy for a shepherd than for a sheep to become lost for a lost sheep is as good as dead. Verse after verse in the Psalms and the prophets gives voice to both the laments of the shepherd…
“My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).
…and the penitent admission of the sheep:
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
It’s no great secret. We wander away. We know it. God knows it. But why? Why do sheep go astray? The people who care for sheep report a few reasons and I think you’ll find the metaphor holds up nicely, or disturbingly, depending on your perspective:
Lack of good pasture will cause a sheep to wander. If there is nothing to feed on, they will wander far and wide to find sustenance. Even with the best fencing, leave them in a place without something to graze or chew and they will eventually find a way out and wander off in search of greener pastures.
Distraction will do it. It sounds silly, but a sheep can become distracted even by feeding itself and soon be far from the group. An intently grazing sheep may graze itself right into big trouble: a muddy bog, or an entangling patch of thorny bushes, or right off a cliff because it was distracted!
Fear. Researchers and shepherds both tell us that sheep only appear stupid because they are afraid of nearly everything. Add to this a rather well-developed tendency to panic and you see where this is going. Ironically, it is their fears, real or exaggerated, if left unaddressed usually lead them away from safety and right into dangers of all kinds.
But wandering away is not inevitable. In fact, all the negative qualities of our fluffy friends can be lessened significantly when they are supervised by an attentive caretaker. All they need is a good shepherd. Enter Jesus: "Listen up sheep! I'm the One you need. I am the Good Shepherd."
The Good Shepherd knows, however, that it's not just that we are prone to wandering away. It's potentially much, much worse than that: sheep can be led astray. Unlike cattle and other livestock that are driven by their handlers, sheep are designed to follow; it is in their nature to be led. That said, they can be misled. Sheep are best led by voice, and if they don’t know the right voice to follow, they will very possibly follow the wrong one, usually to their demise. Again, need for Good Shepherd established.
But for all the negatives involved with being prone to wander or being mis-lead-able, having the capacity to be led, means sheep can develop something rare and beautiful in the animal kingdom: a relationship with their shepherd. Perhaps this is the comparison God truly had in mind when He called us sheep. Not because we can be difficult and prone to bad habits, but because we are capable of relating to Him. Not because we are dumb, but because we are dearly loved.