Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Different Look at Sheep and Shepherding

Traditionally, sheep have been used in many ways to personify unthinking obedience.  "Like lambs to the slaughter" and "mindless sheep" are common images, but that image is not what is described in our scriptures when a shepherd enters the picture.

In our scriptures, the use of sheep to make a point about our relationship to leaders (principally, the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Master) does not give such a portrayal - and I believe the exact nature of the relationship between a shepherd and the sheep gets glossed over too much.  If I am to "watch over the flock more diligently" this month, I first need to examine that portrayal more closely before I can model it more effectively.

The following are a few verses that describe the relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep, with my comments about each verse:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  (John 10:27

To watch over the flock more diligently, first my voice must be heard - and recognized.  Second, I must know them well enough to lead them to where they need to go.  Those whom I "shepherd" in some way must know me in such a way that when they hear my voice they understand that I know them - and, understanding I know them, they will follow me as I lead.  (That is a powerful picture many people don't consider - that a good shepherd doesn't "drive" sheep anywhere from behind; rather, he leads in front and they follow.)  In a way, what I say must be relevant to them and touch them in such a way that they know I have their best interests at heart - they must trust that I know them well enough not to lead them into harm.

That should concern me enough to be extra "diligent" in the way I speak to them.

I know my sheep, and they are numbered. (3 Nephi 18:31

There are multiple verses that mention how the sheep are "numbered".  The most obvious definition of this word is "counted", but there is another connotation that I really like - to be "included".  If I know the flock and watch over them diligently, in a very real way I must "include" them in my life and be "included" in theirs.  I can't shepherd without spending significant time with the sheep. 

Shepherds don't lead sheep from afar; they walk among them.  They serve them.  They are not distant, authoritarian rulers.  They serve their sheep.  In fact, their entire job and purpose is to protect the sheep and allow them to thrive.  If there is a totally self-less position, it is that of shepherd - and this is exemplified in the idea of "numbering" them.

The thread that runs through all of the possible references is encapsulated in the following scripture, to which I will not add any commentary:

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him:

Feed my sheep.  (John 21:15-17)

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