‘I just wanna be a sheep’
I come from a country that is famous for its sheep. New Zealand used to have more than 70 million sheep. Now the number is about 29 million, according to teara.govt.nz. August is the best time of year to see the sheep, as it is late winter, when the ewes are lambing. It is delightful to watch the lambs gambolling in the fields playfully, so different from their sedate mothers.
Thinking about sheep gets me pondering all the Biblical references to sheep. The way we farm sheep here in NZ is quite different from 1st Century Palestine or how David cared for his father’s sheep before he became king of Ancient Israel. These differences can teach us something about our relationship with God.
Shepherds in the Bible
It’s clear from reading the Bible texts that the good shepherds in those days (like David) had a small number of valued sheep, each one of which was known by the shepherd, and who knew the shepherd and followed him.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. “ (Luke 15:4-6 ESV)
Jesus also talks about the shepherd’s relationship to his sheep in John 10:3-4, where he says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. “
Contrast this with modern farming, where a farmer will often have hundreds, if not thousands of sheep. They live in fields fenced by barbed wire. They are seen as stupid animals, that the shepherd herds by using dogs to make them obey his will. You do not see a shepherd leading his sheep, instead driving them in front of him. They have an ear tag with a number to identify them to the sheep farmer.
To me this speaks of two different ways of relating to God.
What kind of sheep are you?
One kind is motivated by fear, and kept safe by barbed wire. These fences are like the extra rules that we make for ourselves or that others make for us, to keep us safe and away from sin. But they also keep us from following the Shepherd to green pastures. Instead we are boxed in where the grass has been overgrazed, living on stale hay.
Some sheep break out, thinking that the grass looks greener elsewhere, and end up on a busy road or in a ditch. This is like those who break away from legalism to do their own thing, or those who fear the Shepherd and his voice, and shipwreck their lives as a result. Both are far from the Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd’s sheep are motivated by love for their Shepherd. They trust him to keep them safe and fed, and they follow him wherever he leads. He leads them to green pastures and restores their souls. He protects them in the darkest valleys and lays down his life for them. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.” The Good Shepherd’s sheep are led by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is not a factory farmer. He wants us to know his voice and follow him out of love. He doesn’t want us to be penned in by traditions or extra rules, but instead to walk with him to green pastures and fresh water.
Will you follow him?