Jesus as shepherd

Ivy has pointed out to me that Jesus talks about shepherding from the vantage point of someone surrounded by shepherding but not actually experienced in it.

Personally, I’ve always wondered why he didn’t tell parables that involved any carpentry metaphors, and why he didn’t seem to value wood. There’s the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit, and Jesus says it will be cut down and thrown into the fire; why not “it will be cut down and turned into a table”?

At any rate, Good Shepherd Sunday brought back to my mind a story Rich Mullins told during an interview. In VietNam, a pastor wanted to preach about Jesus as the good shepherd, only he’d never seen a sheep and knew nothing about shepherding.

(I have to relate a funny story here. I’m a city girl. Sometimes I take my Kiddos out of Angeltown to a farm to pick apples or blueberries, and while we’re there, we see the farm animals. A while ago, when we went, it was one of the household guardians’ first times there, and I felt this startled question in my head, as if to say, This is what you do for fun? You pretend to farm? And it all unfolded in my head in an instant, that this was how people lived for thousands of years, and here it is now, a day-trip. For a moment, I could see the absurdity from an outsider’s point of view. That’s how divorced we are from an agrarian culture.)

The pastor in Rich Mullins’ story didn’t go blueberry picking; instead he walked fifteen miles to the closest library, read up on shepherding, and walked home again to preach to his congregation on what he’d found.

The pastor told them, “A shepherd tends and protects his sheep, then takes their wool, and eventually he kills them to take their meat.”

I think that was supposed to horrify the American listeners, but this is exactly where I stood for a long time in relation to God. I had an attitude of complete submission because I identified with this idea of the shepherd: Jesus protected me, but at whatever time as he wanted to go ahead and “use” me for whatever I could give him (my wool, my meat) then it was his right to go ahead and take it. At some point or another, it would happen.

After all, shepherds aren’t raising sheep as pets. They’re raising them for a reason. Sheep make yarn. They make little sheep. And eventually, they go to the butcher.

Last year, my spiritual life got wrenched around in ways I never expected, and at one point, this belief came under scrutiny. It was so low-level and so long-term (think three decades) that I’d never been aware of it, but I had no trust that God wanted what was best for me, only for the Kingdom of God, the big picture, the system. I was a pawn in an ontological game of chess, and God might sacrifice the pawn for a better position. You don’t care about your chess pieces. It made sense that in the larger system of things, God didn’t care about me either. I owed God my fealty, and I would be loyal, but I fully expected at some point to be sacrificed off the board. 

How this translated into my behavior was this: clearly your best bet is not to attract God’s attention. Don’t stick your head up, and God won’t get out the hammer to bang you down again.

And I know this shocked (horrified?) my guardian angel, because at one point I actually heard in my head, during prayer, “It’s okay to trust in God. He knows what He’s doing.” But it wasn’t God’s competency I had called into question. It was His concern.

Ivy worked with me on this, but we couldn’t get me past the “grand master chessman” toward anything resembling “fatherhood.” There was too much fear involved.

I can’t go into what happened that turned me around. It’s too personal and you wouldn’t believe it anyhow. But it’s a year later now, and I’m convinced that God cares about me personally, the same way He cares about you and about your best friend and the next person who reads this after you, and that God’s big enough to juggle all these things to make it happen. It’s quite a change, but the largest difference is I’m no longer afraid to stick my head up and get God’s attention. The fear is gone.

If Jesus is a good shepherd, though, then he’s got an eye toward economy and the usefulness of the sheep. I still don’t know how to reconcile that.

And what does it mean that Jesus is both the Shepherd and the Lamb? 


  1. xdpaul

    As the son of a (literal) shepherd, I sometimes wondered if Jesus really understood shepherding was, for the reasons you mention. Although I do think Christ also demonstrated a keen mind on carpentry matters when he spoke of his father’s house as well as the importance of a stone foundation when it is more convenient to build on sand, the shepherding does seem to be hard to fathom at times.

    Let me put it this way: growing up, I hated sheep. I was extremely partial to our relatively small herd of swine. Hogs are, by far, the smartest, most affectionate, most trainable of all livestock. Sheep, in contrast, are dull, dispassionate, troublesome and, at best, a hassle.

    Kind of like us. A good shepherd, however, considers none of that against the sheep, though he has every right. He tends to them, redirects them, rescues them. Shearing wool, especially in a post-wool economy is a costly practice that yields only comfort for the beast, and little if any profit for the shepherd. It is hot, sweaty, thankless work that provides a cooling balm for the animal.

    Yes, sheep are eaten for food (and delicious, even this sheep-hater admits), but, at least in the modern day, the slaughtering of sheep is a process outside of the shepherd – determined largely by the market and executed by the slaughterhouse or butcher.

    The analogy of the shepherd ends where his duties do, to me. I grew up watching my father gun down rabid foxes, midwife thousands of births, feed and water daily, vaccinate, and even sacrifice time and treasure for the good of the flock.

    I think the Rich Mullins story is hilarious and insightful, but doesn’t complete the picture. There is a big difference between the dictionary or scientific description of a shepherd and Jesus’ understanding of the Good Shepherd. Especially when you consider that, in Jesus shepherding paradigm, there is only only one lamb who was slain: the good shepherd himself.

    From the substitutionary sacrifice of Isaac (and Isaac’s subsequent “resurrection” according to Hebrews 11), to the Passover blood, to the temple sacrifice, to the Lamb Who Was Slain, we seem to owe a quiet, but immeasurable debt, to the humble, boring, non-holy sheep. God is humble. So should we be.

    Thanks for taking this one on.

  2. ivyreisner

    Sheep can be bred for wool or for meat, but the same sheep is very rarely good for both. You’re selecting for different characteristics. Also, an old sheep gives amazingly soft wool. Shepherds who breed for wool don’t normally kill the sheep. They want as much of that high-quality old age wool as they can get.

    All sheep need to be shorn. They get sick if they aren’t. This is largely because we’ve bred wool sheep for thicker fleeces, but the point remains, a sheep needs to be shorn.

    If a shepherd doesn’t much care about his sheep, he sheers in winter and summer. Winter, because spring will bring the rainy season and he wants to get the fleece before it’s too dirty and summer because that’s six months later. This leaves the sheep unprotected when it most needs protection, when it’s cold and when the sun is so strong it can burn the sheep’s skin. The lanolin in the wool is a natural sun screen.

    The shepherd who cares about the well being of his flock sheers in late spring and autumn. This gets the coat off just after the rainy season has ended, and the weather is warm enough for the sheep. By summer, the coat is back and the lanolin is protecting the sheep’s skin. Sheering in fall allows the fleece to grow back enough to keep the sheep warm in summer.

    The bad shepherd puts his needs first (easier to clean fleece and better profits). The good shepherd puts the good of his sheep first. I believe that is what we’re supposed to understand.

  3. ivyreisner


    Please do not suggest we could ever be in a post-wool economy this early in the morning. I only have about half a pound of the stuff on my desk and you’re scaring me.

  4. ivyreisner

    Er, I meant warm in winter above. Because of course sheep want to be kept warm in the summer. Right. No blog commenting before coffee.

  5. blueraindrop

    the way i dealt with this was with the parable of the shepherd that left 99 sheep to go looking for the one…. then celebrated when it was found. Yes, the sheep benefit him, but there is more attachment than that. Who would risk 99 percent of their livelihood to go after a lost percent if it was only a business decision?

    The threat of being turned into a table isn’t as frightening to humans listening probably. Fire has nice symbolism as well. But really, probably a lot more people were familiar with sheep than were familiar with woodwork. I’d assume a town needed a whole lot more sheep families, but probably only a carpenter or two per town.

  6. philangelus

    Ivy, although you may have a fleece on your desk beside your Kindle and your laptop and you may have to step around a spinning wheel to change DVDs, the fact is, most people have no idea where yarn comes from nowadays. I didn’t until you showed Kiddo1 how to spin. Sorry. Now go have some coffee and hug your yarn stash for comfort.

    Blueraindrop, it’s good to see you blogging again. 🙂 I never got the “99 sheep” thing either, really, because sheep aren’t good at defending themselves (hence the need for a shepherd) and it seems the shepherd is risking the loss of the entire herd by going off for the one. I’m glad when I’m the one, but I’m not so sure how the 99 would feel if they got poached or slaughtered because the shepherd was pulling someone out of a drainage ditch, yanno? But that’s where I don’t get it at all. Like I said, city girl = me.

    Maybe the thing about the wood being burned is that a table would be useful afterward, but a ruined soul isn’t good for anything afterward. It’s just dark and cold, and that’s it. No one else can benefit from it.

    Okay, back to sheep, about which I learned more yesterday than I thought I would. 🙂 I hadn’t realized meat-sheep were different from wool-sheep, but that makes sense. So does the alternate schedule for shearing. (Although I had read that in the Holy Land the rainy season was during autumn-to-winter.)

    I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn’t realize how stupid. The monks at Mt. Saviour had a ram once that got out into the ewes a little too early, and when they went looking for him, the ewes positioned themselves around him and hid him while he crouched on the ground. Of course, this caused problems with lambs being born into really cold, snowy weather, but the sheep seemed amused by the initial mischief. And yeah, that is a lot like human beings.

    But my question still stands, which is that a good shepherd is going to keep in mind not only the well-being of the sheep but the purpose for which he’s keeping them. he’s going to want what’s best for the sheep *and* his employer (since he’s not going to be a good shepherd any longer if he’s fired for letting the 99 unshepherded sheep get scattered by a thunderstorm; then he can be a good something else, maybe.) And the sheep are being kept for a reason, right?

    The writers of the Bible knew that. Jesus knew that. King David knew that (psalm 23) and so on. So there’s a lot to ruminate on.

    (Or is it only cows that ruminate, not sheep?)

  7. xdpaul

    Ivy, a post-wool economy is good for yarn-makers and other wool crafts today. Even in good wool-market years, my father was happy to break even on wool. Of course, we were Suffolk breeders, so, though they produce decent wool, the money is in the meat.

    If there was still a huge industrial wool-economy supporting high-cost wool, I think the wool crafts today would actually suffer due to barries of entry. Wool has a butterfly economy today, is a relatively accessible resource, and therefore seems to have more diverse and local applications than it did before the synthetics and synthetic-cotton blends began to dominate mass-produced textiles.

    So all I was saying that the days of producing wool for mass consumption are over, but a lovely artisan economy is in its place, and more diverse than ever, even with far, far fewer head produced. Sheep production fell drastically in the 20th century, from about 60 million head during WWII to less than 7 million today. To my knowledge, that is not only the steepest decline in livestock production of the major species, it is the only one. Hogs, cattle and poultry have certainly grown.

    So I guess I think a post-wool economy benefits the end user of wool: it is cheap and abundant, even as animal production has fallen by 90% of its former glory. I think a shift toward the meat-profitable but good (not great) wool producing Suffolks makes sense in that light.

    Wow. Sorry to derail the theology in favor of ovine esoterica! [Be thankful for small favors: I could have just as easily gone for bovine erotica.]

  8. xdpaul

    P.S. Yes, sheep are ruminants. But I guarantee you they’ve never ruminated on anything.


  9. Ivy

    Jane, you’re right that most people don’t know where wool comes from really, or they do, but don’t internalize that knowledge. My favorite moment in all of that was when I showed Jason a pound of Wensleydale and told him it was from a sheep that lives in Pennsylvania.

    He was so shocked he laughed and said, “What? Do you know the name of the sheep too?” The jump between “wool comes from sheep” and “this wool came from that sheep” or better “this hat came from that sheep” is oddly a big one, and watching people take it never ceases to amaze me. Now, of course, he recognizes fleeces and asks, “Is that T’Pring’s wool?” without blinking.

    As to the 99 sheep thing, what if the angels were, following the metaphor, like alpaca? Alpaca are like sheep in some ways–they produce fiber, though it’s much nicer than wool (warmer and softer), they graze, they live in similar climates. Just like angels are like humans in some ways–they are created in the image of the divine, they pray, they stand in Judgment before G-d. But just as angels are a whole lot stronger than humans, alpaca are bigger and stronger than sheep. They can protect a flock. A wolf (which might be a nice metaphor for a demon) can take down a Cotswold, which is a pretty big sheep as sheep go, but it’s not going to try fighting even a modest-sized alpaca. Alpaca and sheep get along really well, so shepherds use them to guard the flock at night.

    So Jesus-as-shepherd can go after the lone sheep in dire need, while the angels-as-alpaca can guard the majority of the herd that isn’t in as much danger.

    Incidentally, sheep aren’t that stupid. It depends on how they are raised. If you use dogs, yell at them a lot, and scare them into doing what you want, you’ll have really dumb, anti-social sheep. If you use a soft voice, alpaca and horses, and coax them into doing what you want (hmm, another “good shepherd” aspect perhaps?) you’ll get friendly, intelligent animals. When Teresa goes into the yard to read or knit she often finds a sheep putting its head in her lap. They think they’re pets. McCoy while he was alive loved to poke his head through the fence and greet people who walked by. The ones at Mt. Savior weren’t stupid. They knew what they wanted and they got it.

    xdpaul, I have some Suffolk in my stash. It’s a good wool for felting. It takes up a dye nicely, and it’s easy enough to spin that I wouldn’t hesitate starting a newbie on it. I would hesitate having a newbie scour it as a first fleece. As I said, it felts really easily. By wool standards, they normally have a medium micron count and staple length, which makes them acceptable for both next to skin wear like scarves and hard wearing garments like socks. Not so much for rugs. I don’t favor the drape for shawls because of the low crimp, but that’s just one knitter’s opinion. Of course, that is from Suffolk bread as fiber animals.

    Side bible/sheep story. You know how, in Genesis, Jacob divides Labam’s herd and then practices that old superstition about showing good sheep speckled things when they bred and weak sheep monochromatic things when they bred, so to get the best sheep for himself? When a breed of sheep was discovered that is naturally speckled, it was named Jacob in honor of the patriarch because of that story.

  10. Ivy

    I realized one other thing. If you’re working a farm as a way to make a living (there couldn’t have been many hobby shepherds in Jesus’ day) then you don’t have just sheep. You diversify. Commonly, that would include poultry, like chickens or geese or turkey. Well, the only way to keep the foxes from eating the chickens was to get dogs to guard to the chicken.

    The dogs would, in turn, scare the sheep, making them withdrawn and nervous.

    So you have a good -vs- good going on. Avoid dogs and have happy sheep. Keep dogs and have safe chicken. But that’s the bane of a fallen world. In a divine world, there may be no choice. It may work out good for both.

    Because animal husbandry often involves things that seem cruel to the animals. Hobbling a horse looks cruel, especially when it’s a four-foot hobble. This is frightening to the animal at first. It doesn’t really slow them down all that much, so it looks like meaningless cruelty. It’s done as a way to train the animal that, if its foot is wrapped it should stay still. So if it gets caught in a wire or a tangle of weeds it stands still trusting its owner to get it free rather than panicking, which would result in it getting hurt.

    I don’t want to get into mukesing here–the off-topic debate could rage forever. I do want to point out that the goal of mulesing isn’t to torture some poor sheep–although it certainly looks cruel and the sheep doesn’t like it too much–it’s to protect the sheep from fly strike. Fly strike is common, fatal, and far more painful to the sheep than mulesing. And yes, it’s undeniably good that gentle alternatives, like injectables, are making their way to market.

    Again, both represent a good -vs- good. Spare the sheep the pain of mulesing or protect the sheep from fly strike. Spare the horse the trauma of hobbling or protect the horse from breaking or tearing up its leg if it gets caught.

    Maybe the “good shepherd” refers in some way to a divine condition in which good can be good always without that flipside cost?

  11. xdpaul

    Oh, as for the 99 sheep “left behind” – they’ll be fine. You absolutely go desperately after the missing lamb, because they aren’t in the right place.

    For the most part, flocks stay together and are relatively stable. A shepherd can leave them for stretches of time without much concern, especially during daylight hours. The sheep aren’t exactly prone to roam too far or split up.

    But the missing lamb is in huge trouble. As I mentioned, sheep are not resourceful, and really do rely on the “wisdom of crowds” and their keeper in order to survive. A lamb on its own can fall in a pit, get its head stuck between rocks, or wander aimlessly, never again finding its home flock. The lost sheep is of paramount concern. A shepherd aware of his surroundings and the events of the days will ensure the flock is safe before leaving it, but I think it is a mistake to think that the choice of the good shepherd is between “protecting the many” and “rescuing the few” – the choice is really between “rescuing the lost” or “ignoring the value of one.”

    I think we do this with the Prodigal Son story sometimes, too. I always put myself in the position of the “poor” loyal son who doesn’t get a party. The point is that the loyal son already has all the good things (and, this is important, he has them NOT because of his loyalty, but because of his Father’s generosity.)

    When the father embraces the wayward son, we often paint it, again, as a choice between “overlooking the deadbeat’s mistakes” or “gypping the loyal kid.” It isn’t that at all. The choice is between “celebrating the restoration of a dead man” or “harboring bitterness.”

  12. JustAnotherFaceInTheCrowd

    Well, sheep raising across the Mid-East and the stretch of land on a similar latitude — from as far west as south Portugal to China isn’t sheep farming as understood by most Western farmers — it is, to this day, transhumance pastoral nomadism. It means: you go where the grass is or the sheep die. There’s still 600,000 people doing this every year, taking sheep up to the mountians for the spring and bringing them down to the plains for the winter.

    A shepherd is never alone — he and his sheep are surrounded by other flocks and shepherds, but each knows which sheep are his (and vice versa — they will actually come when called). And of course, livestock guarding dogs plod along at sheep’s pace. You *can* leave your 99 sheep in someone else’s care and that of the dogs to go search for the one lost lamb, who must be found or it’ll be left behind and perish.

    It’s not a hugely profitable business and most sheep used are distinctily ‘unimproved’ : ie not yielding high amounts of either wool or meat. But it’s traditional, it occupies lots of people and is very low-input indeed.

  13. philangelus

    Hold the phone — sheep *actually come when called*? My children don’t even do that!

  14. philangelus

    xdpaul, I need to write about The Prodigal Son someday, because last year something happened that threw that entire parable into a new light for me. That dichotomy is definitely at play (the loyal one gets shafted to some extent when the younger one comes home) but you’re right about the bitterness.

    Bitterness itself would be a way of straying, would it not?

    I’m glad to hear that the 99 sheep aren’t left in any danger while the shepherd goes after the little lost one, though. That never seemed quite fair to me.

  15. xdpaul

    Yeah. Trust me. I’ve done my share of leaving the 99 for the one. My dad would’ve KILLED me if I hadn’t. The search for the lost one is more about desperate focus than a meditation on Spock’s “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” sacrifice from Wrath of Khan.

    Yeah. Sheep and Star Trek. I just did that.


  16. Pingback: Worries « Seven angels, four kids, one family

  17. CricketB

    I love how the different commenters bring different insights! My first reaction was that Jesus used the best analogy he could find, and, like any analogy, it breaks down if pushed too far. I still think that, but after reading xdpaul’s comments, I realize it’s a better analogy than I thought.

    The effectiveness of an analogy depends on the audience’s understanding. Cool. I wonder what analogies He’d use today.

    I think different breeds of sheep have different intelligences, just like dogs. It all depends on what you’re breeding for and what good things get tossed out with the unwanted traits. I can see curiosity being a bad thing in a sheep.

    Also, Jesus was a storyteller, not a writer. Story listeners don’t have the time to go back and review the story and look for details. Sure, some do, but many will take it at face value.

    I like xdpaul’s thoughts on the Prodigal Son. I’d always looked at as unfair. Yes, I like the celebration, but it’s still unfair. But he’s right, the loyal son has benefited from “long and slow” generosity. As a parent, though, I’d still make sure my other kid didn’t feel left out. Maybe celebrate two kids reunited, or a extra time alone with him, or something.