1 Peter 2:25 “For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Sheep are daft. My farmer father in law says that sheep have a death wish. They can be difficult to lamb, they get infections like mastitis and scrapie, they roll over to scratch their backs in the summer and get stuck. They fall in ravines and streams. They are born to look for ways to die.
And sheep need a shepherd or a farmer to look after them given their complete lack of self preservation. Our ‘modern sheep’ have been especially bred for lamb chops which is great for carnivores but not so good for the practicalities of lambing. My father in law would be up before dawn checking them and doze in his chair in the evening and be back out while we would be off to bed. He would know his sheep but none of them had names apart from Georgina, Simon’s pet sheep.
In Jesus time sheep were still as stupid but they farmed differently. Sheep at that time were just as easily led and in danger of being attacked by predators or their environment. In ancient Israel each shepherd would have a flock of their own sheep to look after, perhaps a hundred. In the spring the lambs were born and winter fleeces sheared. And then they moved the sheep from place to place, looking for fresh grazing and in the summer to higher, cooler ground. At night shepherds would protect their sheep from jackals and hyenas. They might keep them in a stone walled enclosure built for the purpose and used by different shepherds or shelter them in a cave.
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. John 10:2-4
A shepherd spent so much time with his flock that he knew them all and often he named them all. He counted them twice a day and inspected them to make sure they were healthy. In turn the sheep new their shepherds voice and would respond only to it.
Sometimes the truth of a parable can get diluted as the way we live our lives change. Farmers don’t know their sheep in that way now. Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep –
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. Luke 15: 3-7
We understand now what Jesus is saying. He is saying I know you intimately, like a shepherd I am always with you, looking out for you. I know you by sight and I know you by name. I know who your parents were, I was there when you were born. I know when you fell down that ravine and I had to pull you out. I know you were afraid when you heard that jackal howl and you looked to me and I calmed you down and protected you. If you stray from the flock I will go out looking for you and I will bring you home.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
He gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:11
We have to accept that we are the stupid sheep. We are fallible and not self sufficient, life is easier with a shepherd in our lives. We are vulnerable to attack, from illness and circumstances and we can ask God for help and guidance when that happens. We are unwise, we are easily led astray by others and we look for the easy path and stray from our shepherd. Just like sheep there are a hundred ways for us to drift away from God.
Our good shepherd herds us together, we are not alone. Sheep bleat when they or others are in danger and we should also warn our shepherd and let each other know when one of our own is in distress or wandering away from the herd.
Thank you that you are the good shepherd who we can trust and follow You and that you know us all intimately. We don’t know the pastures you are taking us to. Sometimes we will be led over rocky ground but in the end by your grace, we will be led to pastures green. I am sorry for the times I have wandered from the herd and thank you that You love me enough come looking for me when I have gone astray. Please let me be observant and if one in my flock is in trouble act on what I see by talking to You and ensuring they are cared for.