Can we please stop calling people sheep as if that’s some derogatory way of dismissing them? It’s offensive – and I’m sure it’s meant to be – but it’s also just plain wrong. I’m pretty sure sheep are offended by it, too.
Okay, I’m not a sheep expert. I think I’ve only ever really met sheep on a plate, in a sweater or stuffed, but I know they’re cute, they’re cuddly, their wool is really awesome and they’re delicious (consumption of sheep increased 28% in 2020, according to the Food Institute, by the way). Sure, they can be ornery and stubborn, they’re not great at defending themselves and we’ve decided they’re not the smartest animal, but, already, the good outweighs the bad.
And they’re not as unintelligent as we think. Like any living creature, some are smarter than others, but, generally, it doesn’t seem there’s any real evidence that they’re not as intelligent as any other animal. In fact, there’s people who really know their sheep who think there’s more depth to sheep than we think. We just decided differently based on a particular behaviour: they flock. Apparently, their need to be together and their willingness to be led or driven as a group is a bad thing.
Sure, a bad leader’s a bad thing. So’s being uninformed or not being discerning about information. And everyone should think twice about following the group, just because it’s a group. That goes for all creatures, especially the ones who are supposed to be advanced and aware enough to think about it.
There are positive things to being like sheep. No, really there are. Sheep flock for safety. Yes, they’re relatively weak and have a limited ability to defend themselves, but when they stick together, there’s security. There’s also warmth and companionship. And when there’s a shepherd – human or not – there’s someone watching out for the group so they can focus on the business of eating, rather than having to have one eye up all the time, watching for danger. The shepherd isn’t just their added protection, either, but a guide, a support, providing direction and care. It’s practically biblical.
Consider for a minute that the frequent image of the shepherd and the sheep in the bible wasn’t just because it was written in a more agrarian era. Nor is there any indication that sheep are thought to be less than intelligent. It’s about a relationship, one in which there is trust, care, companionship and love. And thought and discernment, too. When talking about being “the Good Shepherd,” Jesus reminds us to listen for the voice that is true, for the one that is truly the shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep, the leader who is devoted to their welfare, the one willing to give even their life for them. Perhaps we need to be more discerning about who our true leaders, our shepherds, really are.
The famous 23rd Psalm speaks of the constancy of God’s love and presence at all times, in green pastures and shadowy valleys, when our cup is full and when we face our enemy. How are we to see that and know that without the wisdom to look and listen and live it? By whatever name or in whatever way you know God, there’s an energy – a spirit – which connects and enlivens all of us. That’s what’s at the heart of the image of a flock: we’re a community, connected, caring and thoughtful.