“I just wanna be a sheep, baa, baa, baa.
I just wanna be a sheep, bass, bass, baa.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
I just wanna be a sheep.”
It’s a popular little song at camps and one I couldn’t get out of my head this week.
Our readings today contain a lot of references to sheep and shepherds. This image is found throughout the Bible, and we probably should not be surprised at this. The culture in which the Bible was written was traditionally pastoral. That is much of the life of the people of Israel was centred around the raising of sheep. The hill country of Judea is semi-arid and not particularly good for agriculture unless it is irrigated. However, it is good for raising and pasturing sheep. Even today, the Bedouins live their lives around raising sheep. In this context, it was not a big stretch to think about the relationship between God and God’s people like the relationship between a shepherd and a flock of sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd”. Even in a world that is becoming increasingly biblically illiterate, this is a phrase that resonates with many people who can often continue with the words of the 23rd Psalm, “. . . I shall not want”. If God is our shepherd, then we are sheep, cared for and protected by this shepherd who gives us everything we need. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.” Things that are very important to sheep. Eating and drinking are pretty central to the life of sheep. So this shepherd is doing a very good job. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.” Life can get very dangerous for a sheep. They aren’t necessarily the brightest of animals and they are not known for individual problem solving. They travel in groups usually and if one sheep heads off in a wrong direction, it is not unusual for others to follow. Not unlike us sometimes. They can get themselves into some very dangerous situations. That’s when the shepherd is particularly important. With a rod and a crooked staff, and often with a dog, a shepherd can do amazing work in getting the flock out of even the most dangerous of situations.
The image works. Even for those of us who have grown up in a world where we have little contact with sheep, we know enough about them to understand what this metaphor is about. And it is carried into the New Testament to apply to Jesus. In Christian interpretation, the shepherd that the prophet Jeremiah talks about, who will come to the people of Israel to replace the bad shepherds ruling over them was Jesus, and those who he put in charge would be the new shepherds, the pastors of the sheep. Perhaps we have seen a few pictures with Jesus as a shepherd, surrounded by sheep. In the gospel of John, Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd” who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep and in the reading we heard from Mark’s gospel today, when the people came to hear Jesus in a great crowd from all over the region, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus needed to be the shepherd for this flock in order to get them on the right paths. His teaching was like the care a shepherd gives the sheep. The image shifts though in the New Testament where Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the sheep. He is like the lamb that was slaughtered for the meal on the night of the Passover in Egypt to feed the people for their journey into freedom. In the book of Revelation, the angels around the throne in heaven sing, “‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ One of the hymns in our Book of Praise begins, “You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd”. This rich metaphor also points to the paradox of the incarnation, that the one who came among us as a shepherd, the one who came to care for us and to show us the way, was also the one who became a victim of human fear and violence.
Even the richest of metaphors have some limitations. The American theologian, Sally McFague, who has been a distinguished theologian in residence at the Vancouver School of Theology for many years, focussed much of her work on a “metaphorical theology”. She argues that we can only know and understand God through the use of metaphors and that every metaphor has its limits. In this case, God is like a shepherd. That is true. There is much that we can see in the role of a shepherd that is like who God is in relation to us human beings. Similarly, we are like sheep. There is much that we can see in the nature of sheep that is like us and can help us understand who we are. However, there are also ways in which God is not like a shepherd and that we are not like sheep. God is much more than a shepherd and cannot be limited to being like a shepherd. Similarly, there are ways that we are not like sheep. In fact, at some level, it is not particularly flattering to be called sheep. Human beings do have a much higher capacity for individual choice and action than your average sheep. In fact it could be seen as something of an insult to be compared to a sheep.
The scriptures are filled with a plethora of images and metaphors to help us understand God and our relationship with God. Even in the “sheepy” passages that we read today, the images are mixed, or perhaps better to say, enhanced. Even in Psalm 23, the metaphor shifts to describe a great banquet that is prepared for us. God’s love and care is like someone who prepares an amazing meal for us, even when we are threatened by our enemies. In the ancient tradition, oil is poured over the head and the wine is so plentiful that it overflows the cup. This is what God’s love and mercy is like. In the passage in Jeremiah, the righteous shepherd becomes a righteous branch that will come from the tree of David. The one who will come will be like the strong branch of a tree that shapes and defines what the tree is.
Although the image of Jesus as the good shepherd who looks after the sheep is powerful and compelling, it does not tell the whole story of who Jesus is. In the reading from Ephesians today, the author uses a whole variety of images to describe the relationship between Christians from Jewish and gentile backgrounds and to describe the believers relationship with Christ. Those from a Jewish background were like citizens and those from a gentile background were like aliens without rights or privileges. In bringing reconciliation between these two groups, it is like Christ breaks down a wall separating them from each other and overcomes all the hostility that is between the two groups. It is like the two groups become part of one new body and this image is certainly picked up elsewhere in Ephesians where the community of believers is described as the body of Christ with many members. The writer returns to the language of aliens and citizens and asserts that all are now like citizens with all their rights and privileges but then very quickly shifts the image again to that of a building. The prophets and apostles are like the foundation and Christ is the cornerstone. On that foundation, each person is like a block of stone building up the edifice into a beautiful temple. If the passage was being marked by a university English professor there would no doubt be quite a few marks taken off for mixing metaphors but as a witness to the gospel, it brings the many rich images together to help us understand what God is like and what our relationship with God is Christ is like.
It is very helpful for us to think in metaphorical terms in our life of faith. For one thing it points us to the fact that we can never, never, fully understand who God is or what our relationship with God is. There is always another way of thinking about God, another comparison that can be made that will enrich our understanding but never bring us to a final conclusion. I always find it interesting that in the Jewish tradition when reading the Hebrew scriptures, the name of God is never said directly. No word could ever fully describe or capture who God is. It is always a reminder that we cannot fully understand God. When we read scripture as metaphor we can always be open to the working of the Spirit as God and God’s work is more and more fully revealed to us. It also enables us to think and imagine new metaphors. For those who don’t have a lot of close contact with sheep or other domestic farm animals, perhaps there are other metaphors that can help us. Can we think of God like a school crossing guard and us like the children who depend on the guard’s presence and vigilance although sometimes not recognizing or respecting all that the guard does for them? Or maybe the church is like a park in the midst of our concrete cities. The ground is God and we are like every tree and flower that is planted, each one different but each contributing to the beauty and life-giving role of the green space in our urban environment. I will leave you to use your own imaginations.
So I do wanna be a sheep. But I also want to be a stone that is part of the temple built on the cornerstone of Christ. I also want to be a vital part of the body that contributes in its own way but is also dependent on all the other parts of the body. And I want to be a citizen in God’s reign of peace, together with people from every conceivable background and location without barriers or distinctions between us. When we think and read metaphorically, and even when we mix up our metaphors terribly, we allow ourselves to be open to the new thing that God is doing. It is easy to get stuck in one metaphor or another and to try to limit God to that metaphor. To make a metaphor absolute and to not allow the beauty and possibilities of another metaphor to challenge and enrich puts us on a dangerous slope, to use another metaphor.
Thanks be to God for the richness of language and of metaphor in scripture and in the whole of our human experience. And let us give thanks that day by day we can learn more and more of the wondrous things that God does in the world and in our lives through Christ who is our Shepherd, our Lord, our Saviour and our Friend.