Today is not liturgically designated as “Sheep Sunday”, but our lectionary readings effectively render it so, as up and down the country preachers dust off their ovine metaphors and try to find a fresh take on the images we are presented by today’s designated readings. Three of the four of them reference animals, and our Psalm is the 23rd, so prepare for some familiar preaching themes!
There are some 200 references to sheep in the Bible. Sheep are repeatedly used as a measure of wealth, they are meek and dependent, and they are a ready and acceptable sacrifice. Their sacrifice is the prelude to the escape of the nation in Exodus, and the sharing of the Passover Lamb becomes as culturally important as our Christmas turkey.
The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd (who is not necessarily the owner) is extensively referenced throughout the Bible, and there is a high degree of co-dependency. The shepherd is both the protector of the sheep and their nemesis, for he has the ultimate power of life and death; he makes the judgments. But in a world of predators, the safest place for the sheep is within the fold, and outside of that the wisest strategy is to stick with the flock under the shepherd’s watchful eyes.
Let me fall briefly into a stereotypical mode: sheep are notorious for straying – just like us (sigh).
I once heard a shepherd interviewed on the radio who offered the opinion that the sheep had the most highly developed instinct for self destruction of any creature in the animal kingdom. Show it a gap in a roadside wall and it will end up on the highway. Show it a cliff edge and it will tumble over. It may indeed walk beside still waters, but one of them will fall in and drown at the earliest opportunity – it’s in the genes. That’s why you employ shepherds.
They are the rough men of the Bible. They sleep out, they don’t get to worship regularly, they probably don’t have good hygiene or ritual cleansing observances, and they probably don’t read. They are usually hirelings at the foot of the social ladder who may or may not be faithful and brave, but at their best can be held up as an exemplar of trust and commitment.
David proves to be a successful (if flawed) King after he is anointed by Samuel, but as the youngest of many sons he is at the bottom of the family hierarchy and not even considered of interest to a Prophet seeking a suitable candidate for kingship. He is, significantly, out on the hills watching the sheep. That’s how unlikely he was. Shepherds are two-a-penny nobodies.
Their sheep know them, however, and in an agricultural version of Pascal’s wager, the smartest sheep is probably best off following the shepherd than taking its own decisions, especially in light of its suicidal tendencies. I need not labour the similarities to us humans.
During the current period of social isolation, I have exchanged a few emails with a General Synod friend who is a farmer’s wife. She has underlined for me that hard work, long tiring hours and social isolation are still the lot of our folk in the farming communities during the lambing season, so do please offer a prayer of thanks for them. What is currently taxing for us is quite normal for them, and they too deserve our acknowledgment. And why not order some meat directly from them while we’re about it?
An interesting cultural shift is surely that if we were to offer a model for a trusting inter-species relationship today, we would surely immediately opt for the example of the shepherd and his dog. Television brought us ‘One Man and His Dog’, and more recently ‘Country File’ has reaffirmed the skill and faithful bonding that exists between a shepherd and his dog. This is a significant cultural difference between biblical times and our own. Since shepherds were of such lowly status, what was important to them was simply never recorded. Why would anyone show interest in the hired help’s helper?
Biblical writers did not ‘see’ the shepherd and his dog working together, although archaeologists have found Sumerian seals from thousands of years earlier which do depict agrarian gods with a dog and a shepherd’s crook. The human-canine relationship clearly existed in those times and was a valuable part of livestock management, either using the dog’s guarding or herding instincts. How odd, therefore, that there is not a single reference in the Bible to that close working relationship which jumps so readily to our minds when we think of of the shepherd and his sheep.
It is the sheep that get all the good biblical press. They are a store of value, they know their master’s voice, they are the worthy sacrificial gift of man to his creator. In contrast, in the 27 biblical references to dogs, they only snarl, drink blood and devour corpses. The best that can be said is that they give warning of strangers by their barking.
If I needed the clinching argument for the divinity of Jesus (..I am a bit shallow..) it might be his redemption of the reputation of my dog Coco! The Spanish Water Dog was the peasant dog of the Iberian Peninsular, but probably originated in the Middle East. She is routinely referred to by my wife and I as ‘Little Dog’ as a daily reminder of that lovely rejoinder from the Syrophoenician woman in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. When Jesus initially rebuffed her request for help using the standard stereotypical Jewish view of the dog, the disciples would have been shocked by her re-presenting the image of the “little dogs under the table”, as one of patient persistent entreaty which is rewarded, probably by the children whose instincts and values are often better than those of the adults.
Sheep, dogs and children all are more benignly commended to us through and by Jesus, whose teaching style is so often one of image not precept. When Jesus wants you to remember something important, he weaves a story around it that is more telling than any textual analysis. Look to the Samaritan plodding to the inn with a bleeding man in tow; look to a sheep safely grazing under the shepherd’s care; look to the child slipping a puppy a morsel, or look to an empty tomb while its former occupant rustles up a lakeside fish barbecue for his friends who (sheepishly) are coming to terms with their own weaknesses and total misreading of what is actually going on. These are powerful images containing so much of what we need to know. There was a reason Jesus taught in parables and never wrote anything down.
Many churches give a children’s illustrated Bible at baptism. I have often heard it said to the parents or godparents that they should replace it with a “more appropriate” version as the child gets older. I am beginning to wonder whether that is where we go wrong. Time and again, Jesus inverts our assumptions and expectations. Maybe we should keep the pictures and throw out the text.