I suspect that most of us here share a fundamental experience with sheep. First we confuse lambs and sheep. Most of us think about lambs who seem wonderfully cute, are gentle of spirit, and how can you not love them? I mean, really. And our experience is mostly limited to the petting zoo/farm context. I suspect that as children we turned to our moms and said: “Mom can we have one? I promise to feed him and take care of him….. please…!!”
I assume most of us here share another attribute – we are all city slickers, urban folk, and suburbanites. Which are all good things… but does not necessarily give us great insight into the lives of sheep or shepherds.
If you think about it, our language uses sheep in a way this is often not complimentary: black sheep of the family, led like sheep to the slaughter, looking sheepish, and calling someone a sheep (you follow someone around and do everything they do). Then there is the saying that “You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind- legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men.”
I had friends in the hills of Northern Virginia who owned sheep. They understood why our idioms of language seem to have a low opinion of sheep. Here is what they had to say:
- When young, little lambs are cute, cuddly, and bleat the most gentle, charming of “bahhhs.” Lambs become sheep and possess an incredibly loud, nerve-shattering voice that blasts out with what can only be described as “demonic.” They are not at all dissuaded from coming up behind you and letting loose. My friends offer that having a defibrillator near-by is a reasonable thing to do.
- It is hard to tell if sheep are intelligent or not. The jury is still out. What is clear is that they possess horrible eyesight. Their poor depth-perception causes them to have a hard time distinguishing a partially open gate along a fence line. Unless a gate is wide open, they tend to follow the sheep ahead of them – and hopefully the lead sheep is following the shepherd.
- If intelligence is not the problem, then sheep have a strong streak of stubborn in them that makes them incredibly cavalier or border-line suicidal. Ed Winston, a West Texas shepherd, offers his years of wisdom and experience on the subject when he wrote: “Sheep are just born looking for a way to die.” He can recall countless stories that involve sheep putting themselves in unnecessary peril, much of which could usually be avoided by doing something simple like turning around.
- Sheep eventually know the voice of the shepherd, and will follow him or her. They follow other sheep far better than they follow a shepherd. Sheep are hard-wired to follow the sheep in front of them – which is why if you get a few passing through the gate, the rest will follow.
- It takes time for a shepherd to know sheep well enough to tell them apart. Sheep apparently see us the same way. .If sheep don’t know the shepherd well, they will sometimes will follow a stranger.
- As cute and cuddly as they seem, sheep are grubby animals, generally covered in dust, dirt, mud and sometimes their own manure. Can you imagine what their wool is like? Tangled, nasty, and possessed of a certain unpleasant odor. My friends had to wash the sheep in Woolite before shearing .
When I gave this homily at the early morning Sunday Mass, two people came up to me afterwards, let me know they grew up on a farm in Illinois raising sheep, and that my friends in Virginia were spot on as regards their experience with sheep.
All of this should make you wonder why Jesus compares us to sheep. Maybe we are just like the city-slicker Pharisee. The whole gospel seems to go over their heads. Makes you wonder if it is really going over our heads also. Let’s run down that list again.
- Really cute when we are little, but sometimes grow up with some behaviors that startle others. Are surprised when other think we sound worse than we think.
- Sometimes we really do not see clearly. How many time have we caught ourselves saying, “Why did I do that….arghhhhh! Unbelievable!!” Or realize we are blindly following the crowd?
- We involve ourselves in all sorts of self-destructive behavior that we cannot escape on our own – even when sometimes the solution is to just turn around.
- We listen to and follow all kinds of voices in our lives. When do we stop to consider if they are truly a good shepherd?
- Grubby? Well we do tend to get tangled up in all kinds of undesirable things. Too often, we don’t seem to notice because, like dirt, dust, and manure on wool, our sin slowly clumps together.
Who could love sheep? Well… the shepherd. The one who knows them each by sight, calls them by name, takes the time to wash them in Woolite, tries to guide them from destructive behaviors, calls them to turn around. Sheep, dirty or no are incredibly valuable to their shepherds.
Who could love us. Well… the Good Shepherd. The one who has known us since we were in our mother’s womb. The one who call us by name. The one who leads, loves, and lavishes care upon us. The one who ever calls us to metanoia – literally, turning around in place – conversion. The one who washes us in the Divine Woolite – the grace of his forgiveness. People are incredibly valuable to the Good Shepherd. As it says in 1st Peter, “By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Sheep … sorry people, need to spend time with the Good Shepherd. How else are we to know which gate to pass through? How are to pick out his voice among the cacophony of voices? How else will we washed clean? How are we going to have life – and have it abundantly?
So…what’s the plan to spend time with the Good Shepherd that you may come to truly know Him?
The trajectory of this homily was inspired by Mike Baughman writing at Patheos.com. His writing made me reach out to my friends in Virginia – and that was a blessing in itself.