Jesus calls us His sheep. Not just in today’s Gospel, but He often uses that analogy. Naturally, if we’re sheep then Jesus is our Shepherd. Like a lot of things in the scriptures, this “sheep thing” isn’t as simple as it sounds. While we Americans may think of cuddly lambs, plush sheep like my friend here, and cartoon sheep that try to sell us mattresses, in other times and places sheep are an entirely different animal. If we knew more about sheep, we might understand Jesus’ message a little more clearly.
If anyone other than Jesus called us sheep we could take offense. Sometimes you hear atheists or agnostics refer to Christians as “sheep” and it’s not a compliment. The four-legged variety are dirty and smelly. Until recently it was thought that sheep were stupid; blind followers with no minds of their own. That’s not true. According to recent research, sheep are as smart as cows and almost as smart as pigs. You can even teach a sheep to do tricks, if you have a lot of time. They can learn their names and pick their shepherd out of a crowd.
You and I don’t run into a lot of sheep. In fact, unless we go to Grant’s Farm, or the zoo, or Our Lady of the Snows at Christmas, we could go our whole lives without ever seeing a sheep in the flesh, or in the wool. In other parts of the world, the lowly sheep is much more common. When Jan and I were in Ireland sheep were everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere. I don’t remember seeing any in Dublin. But once you leave the city, they’re everywhere. That’s why the really good sweaters come from Ireland. Lots of sheep make lots of wool.
It’s strange seeing all those Irish sheep because most of them are spray-painted in different colors. That’s so the farmer can pick out his own sheep when they all wander off down the road. When the sweater factories get the wool, they have to bleach it to get it back to its natural color. But, I digress. Poorer countries depend on sheep because they can’t afford cows and pigs and hot and dry countries depend on sheep because cows and pigs aren’t happy living in the desert.
Some people serve Lamb for Easter dinner but it’s still not something you normally see on a lot of restaurant menus the rest of the year. Here’s something you may not know. Lamb is the meat of young sheep. Mutton is the meat of older sheep. Real Irish stew is always made with lamb.
Sheep are one of the few animals you can use to make clothing more than once. Where you can’t make a pair of shoes out of a cow without killing it, sheep’s wool can be harvested every year. Maybe they’re smarter than cows after all. The sheep is a very versatile animal. Here’s another fun fact about sheep. Their field of vision is 320 degrees. They can see behind themselves without turning their heads. It’s hard to sneak up on a sheep.
Sheep are known to be meek and mild. When someone is less than bold, we say they’re sheepish. We call someone a wolf in sheep’s clothing when they pretend to be our friend when they’re actually something else. My friend here is a black sheep. He lives on top of my computer monitor. I keep him there to remind me that sometimes I’m the black sheep of the family.
That’s probably a lot more than you want to know about sheep, but there is a point to all this sheepology if you bear with me. Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” Jesus and His listeners understood sheep behavior. Even though it took the scientists twenty-one centuries to prove it, sheep recognize their shepherds and will follow them anywhere. The same holds true for us. Jesus IS our shepherd. You and I hear His voice and follow. Not because of some herd instinct that’s programmed into our minds at birth, but because we understand that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Light.
Here’s one more interesting sheep fact. I promise this is the last one. Sheep are afraid of shadows and will always move from the darkness into the light. That applies to most humans as well. Jesus, the Good Shepherd calls us to follow Him from darkness into the light. If we’re smart, as smart as a sheep, we’ll follow Him.
In Jesus’ day, shepherds were outcasts from society, mainly because they smelled like sheep and because their job didn’t allow them much time to hang around with people. We know that Jesus became an outcast too. Not from his sheep, they (or should I say we) love Him and will follow Him wherever He tells us to go. But His teaching was new. It was dramatic. To the powers that be, it was outrageous!
With 2,000 years of 20/20 hindsight, it still seems outrageous, UNLESS we see it through the eyes of faith. Then it makes perfect sense. Just as the shepherd protected his sheep, keeping them safe and alive, Jesus said, “I give them (His sheep) eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
John says in the second reading from Revelation, “For the lamb who is the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Wait a minute. Is Jesus a shepherd or is he a lamb? Which is it? The answer is that He’s both. He says in the Gospel, “The Father and I are one.“ Jesus is God. But he became man so He could die and be resurrected to save us from our sins. The shepherd became a sheep who became the glorious Lamb seated on the throne. If we follow His lead, listen to His voice, and do what He tells us, one day we’ll join Him.
Finally, today is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We need human shepherds to stand in for Jesus in the vital work of leading His flock. We’ll pray for vocations in today’s petitions, just as we do every week. Please remember to put in a word for those who might be discerning a call in your daily prayers, too.