John 10: 1-18
Today, sheep: Ovis aries, or O. aries; even-keeled even-toed ungulates (having hooves); lovely creatures; herbivorous; ruminants; fluffy; among the first animals to be domesticated; occasionally inclined to follow their owners to school – against the rule.
A word about shepherds and shepherding. In first century Palestine, sheepfolds were made of stone with an opening at one end. The shepherds were boys or young men. Although shepherds occupied the rung just below the bottom rung of the social ladder, shepherding was an important job. To properly feed and protect their ovine charges, shepherds had to be quick studies. They had to be resourceful, steady, and courageous. They had to know their sheep so as to know what to expect in given situations. And the shepherd’s work day did not end when the sun went down. At night, he would lay himself across the entrance to the sheepfold so as to put himself between the sheep and harm’s way.
So, sheep: dirty; stupid. Really? Dirty and stupid are perhaps the two adjectives most commonly applied to sheep, especially in homilies, where they are routinely compared to the People of God – an unfortunate comparison favoring neither sheep nor the People of God.
First issue: Are sheep dirty? They are reluctant swimmers and they neither bathe nor shampoo. For one thing, it’s hard to open a bottle of shampoo with your hooves; as well, it takes almost a whole bottle of Breck® to do one sheep, and most sheep are on fixed incomes. By nature, they are no dirtier than other creatures. Dirty and clean are human concepts in any case. A dog, for example, has no concept of clean beyond not soiling his own nest and indeed I’ve had absolutely no luck in getting Rags to vacuum or dust. He does, however, love to swim and he’s good-natured about bathing, although he won’t head into the shower on his own. I’ve tried saying, “Hit the showers, Rags!” He’ll just stand there looking at me, wagging his tail. Contrasted with dogs, cats are often thought of as clean and even fastidious creatures, mostly because they spend most of their waking hours grooming themselves, which really means only that their fur is covered with cat spit. And then there are the hairballs. Just saying. I mean what’s not to love about a cat?
Dirty is an epithet. Note that we humans routinely label those we think of as our enemies as dirty: They live in filth. Have you seen their houses? They never bathe. Soap and water are foreign to them. They could use a good hosing down. They smell bad (“Bee-Oh.” Remember the Lifebuoy® campaign?). They just don’t have the same standards we do. They don’t use deodorant. They have bad breath. Their hair is greasy. Their teeth are yellow.
Stupid is an epithet, whether applied to people or to sheep. Are sheep stupid? Nope.* People who measure intelligence in animals tell us that sheep are only slightly less intelligent than pigs, and pigs are among the most intelligent of mammals. Sheep recognize and remember – for years – the faces of individual sheep and humans (especially humans who are feeling sheepish). Sheep form lifelong friendships. They stick up for one another. They protect the more vulnerable among them.
So why do we persist in thinking of sheep as stupid? Here’s what I think: Because they’re social animals, and because they’re prey. (As every schoolchild knows, the eyes of many predatory animals face forward while the eyes of many prey animals face outward, which means that sheep have lousy depth perception. OK, but how about SHARKS? Sharks are predators but their eyes face outward. Explain that, Mr. Smarty-pants!) We admire predatory creatures and think of them as noble and powerful. The stately lion, for example, is the “King of the Jungle” or in Oz the “King of the Forest” – not queen, not duke, not prince – even though lions don’t actually live in jungles, making them non-resident monarchs. Prey, on the other hand, are thought to be weak and stupid.
More to the point (So there’s a point?), predatory animals are more likely to be solitary or nearly so, while social animals live in groups. As social animals, sheep do not fare well by themselves. But then neither do human beings (loneliness, anyone?). Sheep startle and run easily – useful in a prey animal. Humans startle easily, as you’d know had you been sitting beside me the first time I saw Alien. Sheep travel in herds groups congresses murders schools flocks as a means of protecting themselves. So do humans. Gosh, maybe we’re more like sheep than we think we are.
Nonetheless, our culture values winning, power, and predation. Our culture values rugged individualists. Almost always male, they are strong and proud. They do not follow the herd. They are dangerous when provoked. Rugged individualists never run from a fight. They need no one’s help, advice or companionship. And yet we humans are not individualists by nature but social creatures, prone to anxiety and loneliness when solitary, in need of the support, protection, and help of others. We long for leadership – so much so that we will put up with corrupt or incompetent leadership rather than go without.
As every schoolchild knows, Ben Franklin wanted our national symbol to be the smart and sociable wild turkey. We ended up instead with bald eagles. Admittedly handsome, bald eagles are timid, unpredictable, and prone to anxiety when stressed. They are also not just hunters but scavengers. There’s nothing wrong with scavenging, but it’s not something you’d look for in your national symbol. And the “eagle’s cry” we hear on TV and in movies is typically that of a red-tailed hawk, substituted for the eagle’s less stirring chirp. Interesting, isn’t it, that our national symbol doesn’t quite live up to its reputation?
Creatures are what they are. They’ve evolved the traits that help them thrive in the ecosystems they inhabit. The traits we value in other animals are those we value in ourselves – sometimes, against all reason. By nature, we are social creatures. We have the eyes of predators and the teeth of omnivores. We live and travel in groups. We do not thrive by ourselves. At our best, we are loving, kind, courageous, generous, compassionate, faithful, thoughtful, and merciful. Sheep? Sign me up. Proud to be so. Sheep with a Shepherd who is Christ the Lord, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep
*To be sure, sheep wrote neither Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Op. 67, C minus minor) nor – and not even – the beautiful “Sheep May Safely Graze” (As every schoolchild knows, Schafe können sicher weiden). And although they’ve been working at it, sheep have yet to draft the Great American Novel. On the other hand, no sheep ever destroyed a barrier reef, no sheep ever filled an ocean with plastic waste, and no sheep ever blamed another country for our own mishandling of a pandemic. Sheep did not create the Electoral College. Neither do sheep have an affinity for misogyny.