I'd never paid sheep much mind until I came to Wales. Here, they're impossible to ignore: they bleat outside the window, and stare, curious or indignant, as you walk past, and polka dot most every green hill with puffs of white. When you call to them, they fling their heads up with a jerk and fix you with a look, annoyed or disturbed. They seem variously skittish or aggressive or befuddled. The ewes walk in a slow stately manner, like they're trying to hide their bulging girth with a show of decorum. The rams walk in a kind of defiant stride, like they're trying to compensate for their fear or impress the lady folk. And the babies – of which there are many just now – run and romp and leap, oblivious to it all. Sometimes, a group of sheep – as many as 20 – will gather in a knot on some knoll of a hill or bend of a river, looking like they're hatching a conspiracy to take over the farm, but mostly they just mill about aimlessly, eating and eating, pooping and pooping.
I'm a bit insulted. This is what Jesus compared us to.
I don't think he was trying to flatter us. He was just telling the truth. At first, it hardly seems a truth to set us free.
If I were to pick an animal to represent me, sheep is the last one I'd pick. I'd sooner be a newt. But given my druthers, I'd take lion, or bull, or war horse, or even komodo dragon. I'd even take gibbon or gazelle, something lithe and agile, master of forest or grassland. There's something in any of those creatures to dignify my sense of self.
They need to be herded, guarded, tended. They can barely think for themselves. They are fearful and, it seems me, testy. They appear to want the nearness of other sheep, but not their closeness: the comfort of the crowd without the burden of a neighbour. They want to do their own thing, just like everyone else. They conform but never unite. They never seem full. They're easily spooked, easily distracted, easily disrupted. They appear to love comfort, and when it's taken, to complain loudly.
I'm probably missing a lot here – I'm sure some Welsh sheep farmer, before my sojourn ends, will pull me aside and set me straight – but I think I've captured the general idea.
Which was what Jesus was saying. As much as I want to think more highly of myself – to portray myself to others and to myself as some noble, nimble, powerful, daring thing, to be admired and feared, the unadorned reality is I'm a sheep.
As are you.
We need God, simply put. We are not nearly as smart or independent or amiable as we think. We are not as unique, or brave, or venturesome as we want others to think. We are, instead, sheep: needy, stubborn, complacent, complaining, ravenous, easily upset, wandering about with our heads down, paying little attention to where our appetites are leading us. Not knowing our way home.
We need God, simply put. Thank God that Jesus did away with flattery and told us the hard truth. And thank God that, telling us that truth, he told us one thing more: he is not too proud to be called our shepherd.
Is he trying to lead you someplace that you're resisting to go, thinking you know best? Will you accept truth – you're a sheep – and believe the greater truth, he's a good shepherd?