Being a sheep

When George Orwell wrote his book Animal Farm he was writing about the Stalinist betrayal of the Russian Revolution.  And so he assigned to each animal on the farm a character which portrayed a person or group of people in the story of the Russian Revolution and the early history of the Soviet Union.

He described the sheep on the farm as the stupidest animals.  After the revolution, when the pigs started teaching the other animals how to read, it turned out that the sheep could only learn the letter A.  When they tried to teach the animals the seven commandments of animalism the sheep couldn’t do it.  So instead they taught the sheep to chant ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, which they would then proceed to do for ages.  Then, when Napoleon, the pig who represents Stalin in the book, wanted to run the farm on the basis of animal exploitation once again and he and his associates started walking on their hind legs, the sheep were retrained to bleat ‘four legs good, two legs better!’ 

So, basically, the sheep are the stupid animals and they stand for that section of the Russian working class who Orwell says were basically hoodwinked by Stalin’s propaganda to believe any old nonsense that suited his purposes.

And the imagery works because we are already used to thinking of sheep as being easily led animals who do not think for themselves.  Orwell invites us to look down upon the sheep and hold them in contempt for that reason.  And maybe we should have contempt for an animal that stays close to human beings and depends on them even though they could run away and even though, eventually, the human beings will kill them for meat.

And yet in the Christian religion, the image of sheep is a very positive one.  Our readings this morning all show different aspects of this positive image of sheep.  We are invited to think about ourselves as sheep and to believe that this is a good thing.  How does this work?

The best known sheep image in the Bible is probably the one we find in Psalm 23.   In describing the relationship between God and his people, this psalm starts off from the premise that sheep have got it made.  The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. 

So the main premise here is that sheep are very well looked after.  The shepherd leads them to pasture and to water.  The shepherd guides them.  The shepherd protects them.  We are invited to imagine ourselves being led and guided by a shepherd who understands what we need and has our best interests at heart.  Therefore, we can be confident that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

It is a very spiritual way to think about our lives.  Instead of stressing about all the decisions we have to make that will determine our fate, we imagine ourselves being led through life by a shepherd that cares for us.

Peter, in his letter uses this image by inviting us to think of ourselves as sheep who were separated from our shepherd.  But now it’s OK, because we have been reunited with our shepherd.

Peter also has this idea that we can endure suffering.  This alerts us to the fact that sheep endure suffering.  Any society that looks after sheep knows that sheep come to that time when they know they are going to be killed.  In that image of the frightened sheep, we can also see the suffering which we must endure.

But Peter then reminds us that Jesus has suffered before us.  He has gone through the suffering we will go through and come out the other side.  So by this we can know that we can endure the suffering that lies before us.

Because, as well as being the shepherd, Jesus is the lamb.  The identity of Jesus switches from one image to another.  He is the shepherd who leads us beside still waters and also the lamb who was sacrificed for us.  Like a lamb he did not return abuse with abuse; like a lamb he did not threaten others as he suffered.  In his patience and obedience to God we see a model that we, the other sheep in the flock, can follow.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus calls himself the shepherd.  This time he uses the image of a shepherd to emphasise the personal relationship of trust that we have with him.  We are like a flock of sheep who recognise the call of their shepherd. I’m the one you trust, he is saying.  I am the one whom you recognise.

But not everybody understood his meaning so Jesus switched himself into a different image.  This time he was the gate.   I am the gate the sheep pass through when the shepherd calls.  I am the gate the sheep pass through to get to the green pasture.  But although, he has switched his image in this passage, we retain ours; we are still sheep.

How do sheep behave?  They look out for their shepherd, the one whom they recognise; the one whom they trust.  And they look out for each other.  They move as a flock.  They take care of other members of the flock, just as we heard from our reading from Acts that the early Christians would always be gathering together and looking out for each other’s material needs, sharing their possessions.

So actually, it is good to be a sheep.  You have other sheep to be in a flock with.  You are led through the gate to pasture and water.  You have endurance to cope with suffering.  And above all you have a shepherd whom you know and trust who always looks after you.

Some people prefer to think of themselves as lions; or eagles; or wolves.  Just think about the names people give to their sports teams.  All hunting animals that have to fend for themselves.  All animals that need to be tough and aggressive to survive.  The one sheep team that I thought of was Derby County and they are called the rams - the one kind of sheep that keeps fighting and struggles to live in a flock.

I wonder what it is like to be like a hunting animal at the time of coronavirus?  You would be obsessed with the idea that you have to look after yourself because nobody else will.  It can’t be easy.

It’s better to be like a sheep; living in a flock where each member of the flock looks out for the other members.  And a shepherd we can trust.  A shepherd who knows us.  A shepherd who gives his life for us.  A shepherd who has endured everything we are asked to endure.

It is good to be a sheep.  Let us give thanks for being part of his flock and declare our faith in our Lord and Shepherd.


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Page last updated: 1st May 2020 4:20 PM