I saw an amazing picture at a church recently. It was of a hillside and a valley, which a shepherd was walking through with his flock. The artwork was good, but that wasn’t what got my attention.
In the picture, the shepherd was following the sheep. The sheep weren’t in a line behind the shepherd. They weren’t clustered tightly around him. He didn’t have a rod up to whack them into line. He wasn’t carrying them. He was behind them as they went up the hill.
As I stood there I realized that maybe if the shepherd is to protect his sheep, he must sometimes stay in the rear, in the background. If he doesn’t, a lion or bear will rush up behind the flock and take a straggler or a sheep might wander off. With the sheep in front, he can make sure they are safe. He can defend them if anything jumps out, and he can watch to make sure all are safe and well.
I’m not a big sheep person. I don’t know much about sheep or shepherding. But I do know pastors who want to compare themselves to the shepherd and their people to the sheep. And I know enough to know that the print I saw of the shepherd following the sheep, or leading them from behind, is probably a much more accurate depiction of how sheep should be “led” most of the time than any I’ve heard preached.
Sheep know where to go. The path is familiar to them. The shepherd may call to them, direct them, encourage them… he is there to defend them and help them, but not to drag them along. A true shepherd isn’t doing his job for the attention he gets from the sheep or other shepherds. He does what he does because he is a servant. A true shepherd doesn’t just expect or demand the sheep to follow. He isn’t to the side beating them with his staff. He’s behind them or amongst them, calling them if they wander, watching for dangers, and making sure they stay together. Their focus isn’t him. It’s the journey, the mountain top, the grass, the water. And he’s ok with that, because sheep focused on those things are healthy sheep.
Hmmm… a real shepherd is there to serve the sheep. They’re his focus, though he’s not theirs. Shepherding was lowly work in Bible times. Shepherds weren’t looked up to or thought of as great. Shepherding went to the youngest son. It was a lowly, lonely task. But very rewarding, if the shepherd loves the sheep.
Ps 23 The Lord is my shepherd…
Mt 11:28Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.