Sheep or Goat ?
These past few Sundays we have listened to scripture readings about the Good Shepherd. Most people also love the 23rd Psalm, about the Lord being our shepherd. But really to know the shepherd we need to understand the nature of sheep. Most of us know very little about animal husbandry.
While on retreat I picked up a book by Phillip Keller titled, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”. After reading this small book I developed a whole new appreciation for the Lord calling Himself the Good Shepherd. It’s a short book but packed with information about sheep as well as how people are also like sheep at times.
It is the shepherd who makes all the difference in the health and welfare of his sheep. His attentive efforts will produce healthy sheep that will be profitable to the family and the community industry. But it is a twenty four-seven responsibility. Yet nothing makes a shepherd happier than contented sheep. Not unlike parents when their children are getting along.
They question remains, why do they need twenty four hour attention? Well that has a lot to do the nature of sheep. They aren’t the smartest animal and can be quite stubborn. By nature they are followers since they aren’t too good at thinking for themselves. In addition they are wanderers and lose track of the flock and may find themselves in a sticky situation. If one sheep wanders away, since sheep are followers, others will tag along and may get into unhealthy plant growth or even poisonous grasses. Now if this wanderer is persistent in bad behavior the shepherd needs to take action and remove the recalcitrant offender in order to protect the rest of his flock. A restless wanderer is a danger to the contentment of the entire flock.
In order for sheep to be truly content and lie down in green pastures four conditions need to be present.
the sheep need to be free of fear, free of tension in the flock, free of aggravation in the environment and free of hunger.
Now some sheep are very domineering and will bully others, chasing them off the best grass and keep up a pattern of friction and tension between the domineering and the weaker sheep. Who would believe that there is rivalry even among sheep. When flies and other bothersome insects are in season they irritate the eyes and noses of sheep causing them to dart here and there into brambles to knock them away. Since it isn’t very effective, the aggravation creates more restlessness. Because they are always hungry they are always seeking greener pastures, which again may look good but not be good. Finally, fear can arise within the flock or from predators nearby. When any of these conditions are present the flock is restless. But these conditions the shepherd can handle with careful planning and knowing the terrain.
Another problem for sheep is that they have no means of self defense. If one should fall into a declivity of some sort and end up on his back with four feet in the air he has no way of extracting himself. If help does not arrive he will die. Thus the shepherd can’t nap under a tree. He must frequently locate the wanderer, see if they are in trouble or causing trouble and return them safely to the fold.
Sheep, not being the brightest, are also creatures of habit. They will walk the same trails repeatedly until they have turned it into a grassless wasteland; even thought there is no more grass. No other livestock requires more careful handling. Regularly the shepherd leads his flock along new paths, to higher ground, fresh grass, clean water and fewer pests.These stiff-necked, stubborn creatures blindly follow the others and cannot discern what is or is not in their best interest.
Jesus said that at the final judgement he will separate the sheep from the goats. What ‘s the difference? Goats, too, are stubborn but they are not easily lead or pushed around. They are certainly not followers. They most assuredly are strong willed and will go their own way.
In human parlance, I’d say its better to be a sheep, even if they are a bit stinky. Sheep willingly follow the Shepherd. They know his voice and he makes them feel safe. But the goat only follows his own voice, his own will. I wonder whether most people prefer to lead or follow. Leading takes a lot of wisdom and responsibility. What does God want for us? I need to choose between God’s way or my way. God’s will versus my will.
God actually commands us to love Him and our neighbor more than ourselves. It’s not a suggestion. Human beings too often prefer to stand out in a crowd, be the star, the winner, the top dog. Christ taught us to live cooperatively in community, but so many prefer their own way over Christ’s way. What we do to others, good or bad, God counts as done to him. We observe, in society a tug-of-war emerges. My rights versus your rights. My rights versus God’s rights. Yes God has rights. There is little room for compromise.
Daily we drown in the negativity rants, the fault finding, blaming, criticism gossip and calumny. Never stopping to evaluate what there is to be grateful for. Never rejoicing over others’ success. Our culture has evolved into one of entitlement. No one seems to give a hand-up or a hand-out, nor a word of encouragement or praise for something well done. Somehow believing that doing good to another diminishes themselves. To be top-dog one must put others down. Rarely do we see someone who is content with what they have, satisfied and grateful for all the blessings they have been given. No credit to the giver. They are entitled! When was the last time you sent or received a thank you card?
In Psalm 23 the shepherd is good because he provides for every need without extravagance or excess. That’s just how God is! If there are any among us who lack anything we too are called to imitate the Good Shepherd and provide for others. Christ is the shepherd who lavishes deep affection on all of His sheep. He knows each by name as well as our unique personalities. He knows whether I am content or jockeying for a better position. Gently He nudges me back to the right path, will set me on my feet again when I am cast down. I belong to Him because He made me for Himself--to love and cherish. Who doesn’t want to be cherished?
So few of us realize how much we really are cherished. We are the beloved sons of daughters of God. His love is without boundary and his mercy is endless! Sheep can get themselves into a lot of tight spots but trust that the shepherd will come looking for them and bring them safely back. At times he may need to use his rod to discipline or to drive off the enemy but always with the sheep’s
best interest in mind. Yes, I would choose to be a sheep because the humble follower is more cherished than a self-willed old goat.