One of the most loved images of Jesus is that of “The Good Shepherd.” Even though we know that historically Jesus was a carpenter, the shepherd metaphor is one that he readily used in teaching us about himself. As it was used as an image for God in the Old Testament, it only makes sense that Jesus would use such a familiar image. Most Christians can recite much of Psalm 23 and when we do, most of us have a mental picture of Jesus as that shepherd. The congregation I served in Winston-Salem, NC had a massive and very beautiful “Good Shepherd” stained glass window. One could sit and meditate on that window and see numerous sermons. (There were times that I preached when the congregation would have been better served by meditating on that window.)
However, there is a problem that I have with the image of Jesus as our “Good Shepherd.” If Jesus is the shepherd, then it follows that we are the sheep; and to be honest with you, I hate sheep. Why do I hate sheep, you ask? Well, it goes back to my childhood. Apart from Shari Lewis’ puppet Lamb Chop, Christmas card images and the cotton ball sheep craft projects from Sunday School, I had very little exposure to sheep.
However, when I was eight years old our new pastor, the Reverend Billy Rutrough, had the great idea that he would film the children of the congregation performing a Christmas Pageant. He would film it “on location” so to speak. He filmed the Wise Men coming over the sand dunes at the Knoxville Sand and Gravel Company, as the sun was setting. Then to film the shepherds’ big scene, we were driven to a farm where they had real sheep. We were placed among the flock and he began filming. Looking at the sheep as I stood there I realized that I had been duped by Shari Lewis and my Sunday school teachers. These sheep were not little, cute and fluffy; they were huge, smelly and unruly beasts.
As Pastor Rutrough was filming, one of the sheep stood on my foot. Sure, I was armed with a shepherd’s staff, but these things had huge green teeth. What if they could finish me off before Pastor could save me. When the angels arrived I could have won an Academy Award because I was truly terrified. I know that it is not rational, but I hate sheep even to this day. I don’t even like them with mint jelly. Sheep are stupid, smelly, disgusting, unruly animals. There is nothing lovable or redeeming about them. And I want to ask, why Jesus would compare us to such animals; I am not flattered. Why not compare us to something majestic like an eagle, or strong like a horse?
But when I pause to think about my life and the lives of all human beings, I realize how much like sheep we really are. As sinners, we are smelly, disgusting and unruly animals. There is nothing lovable or cute about us, and we are easily led astray. The Good Shepherd has some really bad sheep. Unlike the sheep that Jesus speaks of in our text, we frequently hear his voice, but choose to ignore it. Often we do not follow his leadership and we stray away from the flock, wandering to places we should not go. Not only is the image of sheep a good one for us, the image of “bad sheep” is even more appropriate.
The remarkable thing about this whole situation is that, despite our being the unlovable, bad sheep we are, the Good Shepherd still loves us. In fact he loves us so much that he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And that is amazingly good news for all stinky sheep.
The late Shari Lewis with her beloved puppet Lamb Chop. If only sheep were really that cute.