Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wiithout the shepherd, the sheep would be nothing

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B

It’s Good Shepherd Sunday, and it is customary in most parishes to speak of the qualities of the Good Shepherd and make the link with the priesthood. But this year, I’m going to take a little departure from this theme and instead say something about the sheep. No one can be called a shepherd without sheep. One of our Pope’s most immortalised phrases is the one where he makes references to pastors, bishops and priests, having to “smell” like their sheep. I am going to take that cue today and attempt to smell like the sheep.

Why sheep? Well the Bible often tells us that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm–Psalm 23. And in Chapter 10 of the Fourth Gospel, our Lord Jesus self-identifies Himself as the good shepherd, and we His sheep. In order to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us that He is our shepherd, we need to understand what it means to be sheep. I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and have never lived on a farm. I lived all my life in a country where the human population is not outnumbered by life-stock. Thank God for that.  In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny, and kind of humbling. If our Lord refers to us as His sheep, was He making this connexion?

Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see that they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons.

The first reason why sheep need a shepherd is because sheep are dumb. Spend some time with enough of them and you’ll soon see that they aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, they are one of the world’s daftest animals. Sheep will follow one another. That’s part of their non-questioning herd mentality. But the problem is that they can follow another even over a cliff. They are scared of anything and get spooked by their own shadow. Without a shepherd, they may soon end up dead before ending up on someone’s dinner table.

And here’s a second reason why sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. Thus, the parable of the lost sheep is not an anomaly to anyone who is familiar with sheep behaviour. It may actually be a daily affair, and not just affecting one recalcitrant rebellious creature but sometimes, the entire flock, in the absence of a shepherd. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.

Sheep are dumb and directionless. They are also defenseless. Left to themselves, sheep will not and cannot last very long. Just about any other domesticated animal can be returned to the wild and will stand a fighting chance of survival. But not sheep. Put a sheep in the wild and you’ve just given nature a snack. Fortunately for them, they are not staple meat for the poor and shepherds do not eat their own sheep. Only the rich could afford them and usually eaten as pie. Makes you wonder why they were called “shepherd’s pie.”

But sheep were not just eaten, they were also used as a common sacrifice under Levitical law. God commanded that the firstborn of every flock was to be offered to Him as a tithe and sacrifice, and sheep were the primary animal used for burnt offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. You’ll also remember that on the high feast day of the Passover, a family would gather together in their home, sit down and consume a sheep together. Sheep weren’t just eaten and sacrificed, but were appropriated for all kinds of uses. Sheepskin was turned into containers for wine and water, clothing, covering and parchments to write upon. Sheep bones and horns were made into writing utensils. Being a sheep wasn’t such a great thing. You either ended up on someone’s dining table or sacrificed in the Temple or made into someone’s accessory or stationery. It was no fun being a sheep, especially when you didn’t have a shepherd to protect it.

Sheep are dumb and directionless and defenseless. So, I guess when scripture tells us that we are sheep who need a shepherd, it is not meant as a compliment to us. It is just a very realistic assessment of who we are and what we need. Yes, it may be true that we have free will but more often than not, we do go with the herd mentality. As for intelligence, we have Albert Einstein’s infamous statement, “There are only two things which are infinite – the universe and stupidity and I’m not too sure about the first.” The stupid seldom admit their stupidity. In fact their stupidity is built upon the assumption that they are clever.

Yes, whether we would wish to admit it or not, we are sheep who are completely dependent upon a shepherd. To say that the Lord is our shepherd and we are His sheep, is to humble ourselves, admitting what is true about us. When you say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” you are saying that He must be in-charge. To declare that He is your shepherd is to allow Him to set the direction in your life, to call the shots, to set the terms and conditions of the relationship. To proclaim Him as our shepherd is to recognise that He is the very reason not only for our survival but also, our salvation. We would be nothing without Him.

Sheep do not have a reputation for being the most brilliant of animals. But what they lack in individual intelligence is compensated by their extraordinary sense of community and they can make excellent followers. The smartest thing a sheep can do is to be loyal to a good shepherd. Nature did not give sheep any good personal defenses like claws or wings or venom. But nature gave them something else, the instinct to stick close to a top-of-the-food-chain ally, someone who can throw a rock or build a fire or protect them from wolves and other predators and force them to go somewhere they would never choose to go, but which turns out to be a green pasture near restful waters.

More importantly, the sheep also have an additional quality, they know their true shepherd. “I know my own and my own know me.” What scripture knew over 2000 years ago, modern science has confirmed. Sheep, ridiculed for a non-questioning herd mentality, possess a sharp sense of individuality and can recognise the faces of at least 10 people and 50 other sheep for at least two years. Once they have that skill to recognise the true shepherd and listen to the right voice, they cannot be deceived because they have learned the sound of their own shepherd’s call.

“I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep,” says the Lord. Too often, we experience a cacophony of voices competing for our attention, for our obedience. And because it is very easy to fall prey to the many noisy and loud voices other than the one true voice of our Good Shepherd, we stray from the fold and get lost in the thickets. And when we feel lost, incapacitated, incapable of carrying on with our lives, let us spend time with the Good Shepherd, listening intently to His voice and accustoming our hearing to His invitation to an ever-deeper relationship with Him. For it is only through our obedience and trust that He can be a Good Shepherd to us and we the sheep of His fold.

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