It’s Good to be a Sheep
In late June of 2020, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued a mandatory face-covering order for both indoor and outdoor contact and groups. Robert Snaza, sheriff of Lewis County (Washington) spoke to a crowd the day the order was announced. “In case you guys didn’t hear, Gov. Inslee in his infinite wisdom has decided after over a hundred and some odd days that we should all wear face masks, inside and out,” Snaza said. “Here’s what I say – don’t be a sheep.” Snaza’s comments were met with applause.
Snaza’s “don’t be a sheep” comment went viral. It has become a meme on social media. It has been so widely quoted that people no longer source the reference. “Don’t be a sheep” means to think for oneself and to act autonomously (literally as “a law unto oneself”). Yet, this phrase has become widely quoted and is hardly, therefore, an example of courageous and creative self-assertion. Thus, don’t be a sheep – stop saying “Don’t be a sheep.”
It is clear that this the pejorative advice, “Don’t be a sheep,” has been tossed about with unthinking and hypocritical abandon. The implication is that I am blindly following someone else without exercising independent judgment and will. This is regarded as foolish, stupid, naïve, ignorant, and/or misguided. For some current critics, “being a sheep” is about as bad as it gets.
Of course, that is not the case in the Christian scriptures. It is certainly not the case here in John 10. It is also not the case in the Hebrew scriptures. In 2 Samuel 24:17, David pleads that his subjects are innocent of his sin and should not suffer punishment – “but these sheep, what have they done?”
Sheep do best when we follow a good shepherd. When we follow thieves and robbers, we will be used and abused as commodities and abandoned when the going gets rough. When we have no shepherd at all, we will be scattered and lost. “Don’t be a sheep” is regarded in the both Hebrew and Christian scriptures as the path to sure destruction.
In 1 Kings 22:17, the court prophet, Micaiah ben Imlah is called to pronounce a positive prediction on the king’s success in battle against the Assyrians. At first, the prophet complies, but the king is not satisfied that this is the truth. So, the prophet gives the straight stuff to the king – “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’” Sheep without a shepherd in this context would be people without a king — bad news both for sheep and shepherd.
If this reminds you of Jesus’ verdict on the crowds – that he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd – then you are paying attention. Sheep without a shepherd will be lost at least and destroyed at worst. We read about that fate in Jeremiah 50:6. “My people have been lost sheep;” the Lord says in describing the Babylonian Exile, “their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.”
In Zechariah as well, it’s good to be a sheep. When the faithless shepherds fail in their duties of care, the Lord will have compassion on them (Zechariah 10:7) and care for his flock (Zechariah 10:3). As noted above, Zechariah 11 delivers an oracle of doom against the faithless shepherds.
What are the characteristics of “effective sheep” in Jesus’ figure of speech? The sheep hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. This has the sense that they recognize that familiar voice. The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name and leads them out. So, they listen and follow. On the other hand, effective sheep run from a stranger who speaks with an unfamiliar voice.
As we noted last week, Jesus is the center of and interpretive lens through which we experience and understand Scripture. Another way to understand that framework comes to us in this week’s text. As we seek to live as Easter people and discern the Good Shepherd’s voice, we can ask ourselves, “Does this sound like Jesus?” That’s the place to begin our interpretation of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Some texts will sound more like Jesus, and others will sound less like him. The texts that sound more like Jesus should have greater authority in our theology, our prayer, and our conduct.
We come once again to the deep and tender intimacy that Jesus extends to his disciples. This is certainly good news for us sheep as we follow him in life. That theme is, I suspect, one of the reasons why Good Shepherd Sunday rests as the pivot point of the fifty days of Easter. We are no longer glowing quite so brightly with resurrection radiance. We are back to the same old same old. We need regular reminders of our intimate connection with our Good Shepherd, the one who knows and calls us each by name.
Sheep do best when they follow a Good Shepherd. And sheep do best in flocks. Jesus talks about sheep who are in “other folds.” Commentators have wrestled for centuries with the meaning of those words.
“In language similar to that used in the parables, John directs his hearers to focus their worship on Jesus Christ, their only true guide,” Gennifer Benjamin Brooks writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “But he makes clear that the Body of Christ is incomplete; there are many who have not yet come to the knowledge of Christ.” Brooks continues, “and therefore have not taken their place in the beloved community under the sovereignty of Christ.”
On the one hand, we can ask ourselves, as Brooks suggests, who are the other sheep who do not belong to this fold? Another way to ask this is, “Who is not represented at the table in our community of faith, judicatory, denomination, etc.?” The risk in limiting ourselves to this question, especially for white, privileged, Christians, is that we are always tempted to center ourselves, our experiences, our interests, and our perspectives.
“The ‘other sheep’ of John 10:16 leave the door open to the readers/hearers of the Gospel and also warn against any kind of exclusive claim on the door-shepherd Jesus,” Meda Stamper writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Deciding who is in and who is out is really, this suggests, not the business of the sheep and is a mystery to them. We sheep-folk are told only to cleave to Jesus,” she urges, “to love, and to testify, as Jesus makes explicit in later chapters of John and in upcoming lectionary texts.”
The colonialist sort of position (that assumes we are the ones who have exclusive access to the Shepherd) will, in fact, make us unfaithful shepherds. After all, the unfaithful shepherds treat the sheep as commodities to be exploited rather than individuals deserving of care. There may be other sheep who are not of this fold. It may be, however, that our fold is poorer because they are not with us. It may be that they are not lacking what we have but rather that we are impoverished by our cultural uniformity and social unanimity. Monocultures are not good at producing new life.
On the other hand, we may well be the ones who belong to “another fold.” It is always dangerous for Christians to believe that we have The Truth by ourselves. Knowing Jesus the Good Shepherd is best accomplished as a whole community of faith. In light of our text, we should always feel motivated to seek out, understand, and connect with others who follow the Good Shepherd along their respective paths.
The Good Shepherd discourse is rooted deeply in the shepherd pronouncements in Ezekiel 34. It’s no accident that the final part of the discourse (which we don’t read this year) moves us to the Festival of Hannukah. Ezekiel 34 serves as the primary synagogue reading for this festival. In the Jewish historical tradition, the good shepherds are certainly the Maccabean heroes who defeat the pagans and rededicate the Temple for faithful worship. In this victory, they restore the people of God to wholeness and unity.
Ezekiel 34 reminds readers that people must be returned from other lands for the Exile to be reversed. The return from Exile is a sort of second Exodus. We Christians note that the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ accomplishes the fulfillment of this Exodus as people from all tribes and nations will return to the Lord of all life. There will be one flock because of the redemptive work of the Shepherd who, in the language of Revelation, is “the Lamb who was slain.”
Finally, the Good Shepherd discourse has much to say about the nature of Christian leadership as shepherding. Karoline Lewis observes that the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21 is rooted in the discourse in chapter 10. “The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep in the discourse,” she writes, “provides the thematic basis for discipleship in chapter 21 by supplying the vocabulary and framework of love, knowledge, and care of the sheep embodied in the dialogue by Jesus as shepherd, and Peter as sheep and then shepherd” (pages 321-322).
In addition, Lewis notes, the interaction between the Discourse and chapter 21 allows for “sheep” to become “shepherds.” She writes, “Following Jesus the shepherd is not only descriptive of the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep but means becoming shepherds, caring for the sheep, and even laying down one’s life for the sheep” (page 322). This is what it means, I think, to be “Easter sheep.”
Being a sheep, for a Christian, therefore, is hardly an exercise in mindless meme-ing. “This is not simply following his example, or thinking, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Lewis writes, “but actual participation in and the embodiment of the work that Jesus did and sends us out to do” (page 324). So, here on Good Shepherd Sunday the counsel and command of Jesus is clearly, “Be a sheep.”
References and Resources
Lewis, Karoline M. “’Shepherd My Sheep’: Preaching for the Sake of Greater Works than These.” Word and World, 2008 (digitalcommons.luthersem.edu).
Neyrey, J. (2001). The “Noble Shepherd” in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background. Journal of Biblical Literature, 120(2), 267-291. doi:10.2307/3268295.
O’Day, Gail R. “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John.” Interpretation, April 2004, pp. 144-157.
Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.
Regarding Robert Snaza speech, see https://www.king5.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/wa-sheriff-on-mask-order-dont-be-a-sheep/281-094bddc6-b99f-412f-b871-6a2157292775.