Sermon on the 23rd Psalm: Sheep are Stupid

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.

Sheep Face by brew ha ha

Original work "Sheep Face" by brew ha ha Shared on a Creative Commons License

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.”

shepherd by Reza Vaziri

Original work "shepherd" by Reza Vaziri Shared on a Creative Commons License

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.

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36 thoughts on “Sermon on the 23rd Psalm: Sheep are Stupid

  1. Carol says:

    geez Rob, I hate to be the one to tell you, but one of the 2 things you know about sheep is wrong. Wool is what we get from the “8 pounds of velcro” covering sheep. Cotton is from plants.

    I always disliked the sheep metaphor until i read that sheep have insomnia. Sheep can not sleep unless are in a safe, level, grassy place, no hiding places for predators, and unless they have eaten, & had a drink of water. Having had trouble sleeping my entire life, I suddenly started to respect the analogy a bit more.

    good sermon! thanks for sharing.

  2. revsmilez says:

    LOL Awesome! When I preached it, I actually said ‘cotton and veal’. Neither of which come from a sheep. It’s funnier that way, but I’ll fix it. Thanks for the catch. :)

  3. Idan says:

    For me, this can be interpreted as “lie about all day, and if you believe in god everything will take care of itself.”

    I tried it, didn’t work. ;)

    A good combination of focusing on what you want and being thankful of what you have is key. I have a lot to learn from you about this subject, Rob.

    • revsmilez says:

      You’ve nailed the danger of the shepherd analogy. The answer to that misinterpretation is that the shepherd leads and calls, and the sheep always have a choice. Laying down and waiting for water and food to come to you will only get you left behind. Removing all choice, like some sort of sheep factory, is the opposite of good shepherding because it’s bad for the sheep.

  4. Don Lett says:

    Very nice article.

  5. WordInSeasonsMin3@yahoo.com says:

    This is a great message! Thank God for the wisdom,knowledge and understand it takes to be a real shepherd over His flock. I will read this in my Bible Study class. I pray God will continue to use you for His glory
    Pastor Elston

  6. Audrey says:

    This is amazing! I needed a way to introduce (in an entertaining way) the 23rd Psalm to my Sunday School next week and I’ve found it here. I knew I wanted to begin by talking about all the things we knew about sheep, but I learned so much more by reading this. Please write more about different topics-I love the way you write!

    • RevSmilez says:

      Thanks, Audrey. I’ve learned some things since I first wrote this that nuance the meaning a bit for me. It’s still a great way to grab people’s attention, and the meat of the sermon – that we are not in charge – is still true. But there is more to sheep than I knew. Sheep really are smart in their own way. Their defining characteristic isn’t stupidity, but skittishness. They’re easily startled and when they get riled they do what they can to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the sheep doesn’t know that running and hiding in a high place far away from the shepherd isn’t the best move. They’re doing the best they can, but they’re actually making themselves less safe. Sound familiar?

  7. Pastor Joe Boggs says:

    I laughed all the way through this. I’m preaching this week on Psalm 23, and I borrowed a few tidbits and ideas from this…I particularly enjoyed the part about being God’s rats.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Tebogo Mokgobu says:

    Wooow what a message mmmh the types of shepherd’s and the character of a sheep that it’s stupid it never crossed my mind like that. Great message indeed. Keep on preaching the good word of God.

  9. [...] Sheep Article Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Monday [...]

  10. I am really enlightened by this article. I thought I grew up in the village and knew so much about sheep. I was wrong. Thanks a million times

  11. Dr. Bill says:

    Big help for my message today on John chapter 10 – especially the part about how to lead. Thanks so much!! Lord bless your ministry.

  12. [...] they’ll get thin, they’ll get smart, and they’ll get by. Sheep?  Sheep get eaten.”  To Read More about this “God Must Laugh Blog” Click [...]

  13. Rob says:

    Found a great link to a page talking about how sheep are intelligent. Good stuff in here to balance the hyperbole. http://www.sheep101.info/stupidsheep.html

  14. Terry Aima says:

    I’ve always told people, “There’s a reason we’re called sheep in the Bible. It’s because “we as dumb as.” Your thoughtful, well-reasoned article proves it. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Gaia says:

    I got plans on this whole sheep thing. I came across your article here and am laughing so hard I got tears running down my cheeks and my ribs hurt too!!! I was researching my own idea with SHEEP as central …I shall get back to you on this and let you know ok. You’re article is best yet.. if i wish to use anything from here that isnt something obvious for sure i will ask ok. :) Gaia

  16. Gaia says:

    I LOVE the part which i had not thought of ….about circus animals and how SHEEP are not, and how sheep cannot go wild….hilarious….i did read elsewhere they can remember other individual sheep faces for a couple of days. HOW anyone figured that out, don’t ask me hahahaha.

  17. [...] for Sunday, April 21, 2013 4th Sunday of Easter Good Shepherd Sunday Earth Sabbath Year C lectionary focus: Psalm 23 (for a good grown-up sermon see: Sheep Are Stupid by Rob Brink) [...]

  18. Rishi Sativihari says:

    So why, do you reckon, Jesus was the Lamb of God? Wouldn’t the Lion of God or the Wolf of God have been less “stupid” ? I think that you are missing a great deal about why Scripture makes an analogy between humanity, who are created in the image of God, and sheep. You won’t find sheep insults coming from the mouth of Jesus. Why not?

    • RevSmilez says:

      Thank you for your critique, Rishi. I agree, I miss a great deal. And in a sermon, I necessarily must leave out a great deal, or else I’d never stop preaching. It’s been three years since I preached this sermon, and I’d probably do it differently now, but I stand by the intent, which was not to insult the sheep, but to wake them up, get their attention, and remind them that their best hope for life is to stay close to the good shepherd.

      • Anonymous says:

        As I’m making my message for my small group, I just want to thank you for your message! It has truly help me see it and understand the Psalm much deeper. It is not about the sheep being stupid, but as a sheep we need a shepherd and we can be shepherds as well :)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hi Rob,

    great sermon! I was doing research on Sheep and came across this. Thanks for sharing! I’m sure the research must have taken some time and putting all that together. God bless!

    Regards,
    Chris

  20. Anonymous says:

    Wow. I always knew that we are the stupid like sheep and I never understood why. You have explained it well and I take it to heart. When you mentioned about the biker, I can’t help but think of those to verses; Proverbs 3:5-6 and 19:21.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I have enjoyed the sermon and all the comments about sheep. Keep up the good work.
    Dee

  22. […] recently read a homily about Sheep – from a blog called “God Must Laugh“. A couple great […]

  23. Manuel obi says:

    Lovely post,tell me what the sheeps should do when they are no longer been sheperd by a Good sheperd(in the church )

    • RevSmilez says:

      There is only one Good Shepherd. Jesus. The rest of us preachers are just pointing people toward him. Sometimes we do a bad job, but that doesn’t change him. Your relationship with him doesn’t depend on a teacher, even though a good teacher can help. Take responsibility for your own life, keep close to the Shepherd, and keep looking for a trustworthy teacher.

  24. Anonymous says:

    nice piece…keep the good work.

  25. Sheep are stupid. I don’t mean to burst your bubble here, but check this link out and then say they are stupid.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html

    For the most part your article is pretty much right one. But, give the sheep a little more credit here. Humans=Sheep… there are a lot of traits in each that could conclude that we’re all stupid at times.

    • RevSmilez says:

      I’ve seen that link! Great stuff. Based on that and other links like it that people have brought to my attention, I preached a follow-up sermon giving the sheep more credit. Thanks for your critique.

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