The 23rd Psalm is possibly the most recognized chapter in the entire Bible. It has brought comfort to thousands, perhaps millions. To my mind, this effectively proves what I have long suspected, that most of us have no clue what this book means.
The Lord is my shepherd. That makes us what? Sheep. I know only two things about sheep. 1. Wool. 2. Mutton. That’s it. Sheep are entirely outside my experience. So I did a little research this week.
How many of you have been to a circus before? Did you see any trained animals? Bears? Elephants? Tigers? You know what you didn’t see? Sheep. You know why? Because sheep are stupid.
Did you know that sheep are the only domesticated animal that cannot go wild? Cats, dogs, birds, horses, pigs, even cows if you set them loose in the world they’ll get thin, they’ll get smart, and they’ll get by. Sheep? Sheep get eaten.
In the animal kingdom, there are four survival stances: fight, flight, posture, and submit. We see this in armed conflict as well. I can shoot you, I can run away, I can fire a warning shot, or I can surrender. So how does the sheep stack up?
Fight: Sheep have neither offensive nor defensive weapons. No fangs, no claws, no shell, no spray, nothing. On the upside, they do come equipped with about 8 pounds of Velcro all over their body, so you can grab them pretty much anywhere and drag them to the ground
What about flight? For starters, they’re slow. Their eyesight is just as poor as their hearing. They have little strength, less stamina, and no sense of direction. Best of all, they have an over-active startle reflex, and they don’t blend into anything. So even if they could run, they can’t hide.
Posture. Dogs bark, cats hiss, rattlesnakes rattle… Sheep baaa. Baaa! That’s the barnyard equivalent of “Please don’t eat me, please don’t eat me, please don’t eat me!” Fearsome, yeah? Dogs raise their hackles, cats arch their back, rattlesnakes coil and lift their head to make themselves appear larger. What can sheep do? How do you puff up when you’re already fluffy?
Sheep know one trick and one trick only. They flock. We used to think flocking was complex behavior. We’d look at the precision of a flock of birds and imagine how hard it would be to fly planes that close together. We know how hard it is to get a hundred people moving in the same direction, but computer science has taught us that flocking is very simple. All you need is a hundred tiny brains, each big enough to hold two rules. 1. If you see a sheep, get closer. 2. Don’t bump into anyone. Here’s how it works.
Here’s the herd. Over here is Little Joe Sheep. Joe sees a wolf. Startle reflex kicks in and he starts to run. No one wants to get bumped, so they all start to run. No one wants to be alone, so they all run together. Notice that the entire flock is running, and the only one who knows why is Joe, and Joe is probably already dead. They keep running until they get tired, the wolf stops to eat Joe, and they live to baa another day. That’s it. That’s their entire survival strategy. Please don’t eat me. Eat Joe. He’s tasty. Run awaaaay!
And God says, “That’s you.” It’s the language of the Psalms and it’s the language of Jesus, when he calls himself the good shepherd. When I was a youth minister, we’d go to camp and the kids would sing this song: I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. I don’t wanna be a Sadducee. Cuz they’re so sad, you see? I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa. I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa. Pray the Lord my sould to keep. I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa.
We have no clue what we’re saying! Sheep are dumb, stubborn, and willful. Even when they have a shepherd around they’re not safe because they still get lost, get drowned, and get trapped. Pick another animal. Any other animal. A rat! Sure, they’re flea infested, disease-carrying scavengers, but at least rats are smart. But God says, “Nope. You’re a sheep.”
Fine. If we’re sheep, let’s learn about the shepherd. If you read Genesis, you’d think being a shepherd is a good thing. All the big names are shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses. But when the Israelites are taken into exile, they go through a cultural shift from nomad to city dweller. By the time of Jesus, shepherds have such low social status, that their testimony isn’t acceptable in court.
Besides being despised, their job is dangerous. Every shepherd carried a staff for the sheep and a rod for the wolves. The sling was dual purpose. If a sheep started wandering off, you could drop a rock in front of its nose and it would run back to the flock. David showed you what else it’s for.
Suppose it was a good day. No thieves. No wolves. You still have to take care of these stupid sheep. You have to go fetch them when they get lost. They have four legs. You have two. Which means any place they can get into, but not out of, is definitely difficult and probably dangerous for you.
This is the holy land. It’s not like there are green pastures and still waters all over the place. This is hard land divided by dark valleys. Every morning you walk to the pasture. At mid-day you make them lay down, so they can get the most out of their food. In the afternoon, you take them to still water, because they’re scared of running water, because of they fall in, they drown. In the evening, you walk them home. If any are too young or too sick to keep up, you carry them.
Your corral looks like a big circle, a thorny hedge with a tiny opening. You sit in the doorway and hold your staff low so they can only enter slowly, one at a time. One by one, you check them out and count them, and assuming everything’s fine, you lay down in the doorway so that nothing gets in or out except over your body. Tomorrow, you do it all again.
The Bible says there are three kinds of shepherds. The hired hand, who does the bare minimum: feeds them, waters them, and when the wolf comes, abandons them. The bad shepherd drives them. He pushes from behind and smacks them to keep them in line. As a result, the sheep become even more stupid and more skittish. They never learn to exercise whatever intelligence God gave them, so they never thrive. They just survive.
The hired hand abandons them, the bad shepherd drives them, but the good shepherd knows them, and they know him. He doesn’t have to drive them from behind. He leads them from the front, so that whoever attacks has to go through him first. He calls them by name and they come to him. If two good shepherds shared a meal and their flocks became intermixed, they would stand at opposite ends of the field, call out, and the sheep would sort themselves out. The good shepherd is their guide through danger, their gate to safety, their rescue when lost, their healing when hurt. The good shepherd is their life.
What does this mean for us? Three things. First, when we see the phrase, “for his name’s sake” we need to pay attention. If it’s for God’s sake, it’s definitely for our benefit, but probably not for our comfort. All we want is a nice life: enough food, water, and shelter, no pain, no work, no danger. God isn’t satisfied with nice. God is good. Notice the very next phrase after for his name’s sake? “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Sound fun to you?
Second, be like the shepherd. Don’t push. Lead. Don’t yell. Call. Share your life and build trust so that when you speak, your people listen. You don’t need to influence everyone. You just need a little flock of people who know you, who trust you, because you know them. You get to decide whose opinion matters, and it’s not the critic.
Third, we are not nearly as tough, smart, or independent as we think we are. And neither is anyone else. I met a man once, a biker who gave his life to Christ, and he talked about what a relief it was not having to be in charge any more. He had spent a chunk of his life making sure that no one, no one, disrespected him or his crew. He had to be constantly aware, not just of what other people were doing, but what they might be thinking. The weight of it drove him to violence and addiction. It wasn’t until he accepted that he was not in charge that he was free to be himself without worrying what anyone else thought.
We are sheep in wolves’ clothing. Trying to be cool. Trying to be in charge and independent. Who are we trying to impress? Other sheep? We think hanging out on the fringes makes us cool. Actually, it makes us dinner. Smart sheep stay close to the shepherd.
Benediction: The 23rd Psalm brings us comfort because we usually hear it at funerals, or in the hospital, or when things go wrong. When life proves to us that we are not in charge, that despite our best efforts, we are not in control, then we find comfort in the shepherd’s arms. How much joy do we miss, how much time do we waste, trying to prove to ourselves and each other that we’re not really sheep, and we don’t need help? Now go, and may the good shepherd who loves you anyway be your guide, guard, and companion every step of the way.