I kept a flock of Shetland sheep for ten years. I got out of shepherding reluctantly, for the good of my remaining sheep. We intend to start a new flock this spring, here on the croft. We will keep a couple of goats for milk and kids, but I believe at heart I am really a shepherd, not a dairy maid.
I learned, as a shepherd, that when Jesus told his shepherd parables, He knew what He was talking about. I wonder if His growing years were spent in the Galilean hills, working with family who were shepherds. It wasn’t an unusual event in a boy’s life then. While shepherds had sort of a rough reputation in first century Palestine, that applied to hireling shepherds, men without resources, who would work for a few pennies a month, along with rough barley bread and rougher beer.
I don’t know if it is evolution (probably not) or cultural training (most likely) but humans respond to lambs very strongly. Humans are naturally attracted to and protective of neo-nates (newborns) of mammal species; it’s the squished up face and big eyes. Lambs, though, seem to be especially winsome. Our species have been keeping company for 10,000 years or more, so it is no shock to realize that humans and sheep have many good traits in common.
I know that the modern political attitude is to compare people to sheep in an unflattering way, but a shepherd sees it differently. Sheep aren’t stupid, or identical, or blind followers. Nor are humans, really. One trait sheep and humans have in common, though, is a need to gather, and find a leader of sorts.
Sheep may be smarter about that than humans. Sheep are never influenced by how pretty another sheep’s fleece or face is; they are not swayed by the vocal prowess of another sheep; they don’t care how many of the other sheep like one certain sheep. Sheep have a need for a leader in the flock who can find food and water, who senses danger, and who can remember how to get to the safe and warm places. That leader sheep also must have a strong parenting instinct and recognize the lambs of its own flock.
Maybe sheep are smarter than people that way. We are too easily beguiled by promises. You can’t promise to animals – they don’t have a future tense in their language. We are apt to follow the person with the friendliest smile, the most flattering words, the ones who give us a sense that we are special while the other people are fairly wrong-headed and even damned. Sheep don’t have a concept of damnation. If they have a concept of salvation, it is probably a lot like, “Green grass, clean water, cool shade, every day.”
I can stand amongst the flock and say, “I have a vision for your future!” and they will go on eating the same good grass. If I fail to keep them in good grass, they will look elsewhere. It would take Sing-Sing to keep a flock in if they really want out. They push, dig and jump. They stay where they are fed well, or they are gone.
Think of that as an analogy for the church and its leaders. Sheep can’t be bribed with doughnuts and sweets. They get tired of that pretty quickly, and will not make a diet out of it. Entertainment might get their attention for a little while, until they realize that it isn’t connected in any way to getting fed. They are interested in the basics of life – food, water, shelter. If pastors thought more like shepherds, I think their flocks might be coming around the old barn more often.