Have you ever smelled a sheep?
Familiarity with sheep reek is not as common as it used to be but it’s a helpful clue that good shepherding is harder than it looks.
As with many animals, sheep lose their cuteness a few months after birth and very quickly become too heavy to carry on your shoulders. There is no biblical record that Jesus ever did, nor does it seem likely that walking behind a fetid flock would inspire him to hoist a sheep. The ubiquitous portraits of Jesus with a cute, fluffy lamb around his neck are best viewed with artistic skepticism in air-conditioned vestibules. Do not try it at home.
But the metaphoric relationship of shepherds to sheep is just what we need to understand our relationship to Jesus. And the fact that Jesus lived in an agrarian culture suggests he didn’t compare us to sheep because of our precocious sweetness. There are less pleasant ways in which sheep behavior reminds us of ourselves.
According to the ever popular Sheep 101 website, sheep gather in flocks and have an almost irresistible instinct to follow a leader. In 2006 in eastern Turkey, 400 sheep plunged to their death following a ram attempting to cross a 50-foot deep ravine. That in itself reminds us why our parents hoped that when we faced moral decisions we would not succumb to peer pressure.
Another sheep habit that reminds us of us is the drive to over-consume everything in their path. The ravenous appetite of one flock kept the White House lawn trimmed to overbite level during World War I, when President Wilson devised ingenius ways to cut grounds keeping costs.
It’s also evident that gregarious sheep and moody cows do not get along well in the same field, and farmers determined to produce both dairy and wool will need a lot of acreage to do it.
You don’t have to be a rancher to know that the juxtaposition of sheep and cows brings out the worst in us humans, too. In the late 19th century, as we have seen in many classic westerns, wars were fought between sheep ranchers and cattle dealers over grazing rights. The cowboys saw the sheepherders as invaders and destroyers of public grazing lands. Between 1870 and 1921, in over 120 gun battles, scores of humans were killed and over 100,000 sheep were slaughtered. If the cowboys ever saw a painting of Jesus cuddling a lamb, it didn’t prick their conscience much.
The more we know about sheep, the more we see the aptness of Jesus’ poetic metaphor. Both sheep and humans tend to follow the leader, succumb to peer pressure, and occasionally assume grazing rights where they don’t belong and where they are not welcomed.
But there is a major difference between us and sheep. Unlike us, sheep appear to have little awareness of the vast differences within their species. They have no sense of the “other,” no xenophobia, no classism, no racism, no sexism.
This is a good thing because there are more kinds of sheep than any other species, more than a thousand distinct breeds. There are fine wool sheep, long wool sheep, medium wool sheep, carpet wool sheep, hair sheep, fat-tailed sheep, short-tailed sheep, rat-tailed sheep, and no-tailed sheep.
But lest this staggeringly interesting information distract us from the metaphor at hand, let us return to Jesus’ own reference to varieties of sheep:
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:14-16)
The allegorical reference to the good shepherd is clear, but the rest of the phrase has provoked more argument and conjecture than all the other verses in this chapter.
What did Jesus mean when he said he had other sheep? And who were they?
Speculation is rife and the phrase is often quoted in an interfaith context. By “other sheep,” did Jesus mean followers of other faiths?
Bible scholars tend to dismiss the notion. More likely, they say, he was referring to his own followers who had reached different conclusions about him. The disciples knew there were other schools of thought about Jesus' identity.
“Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist, but others, Elijah, and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” (Luke 9:18-19).
There were also admirers of Jesus who didn’t hang with his entourage but dropped his name anyway:
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.’” (Mark 9:38-40)
Other theories about the identity of “other sheep” tend to be ecclesiocentric. We Baptists are sure the other sheep must be everyone who is not us. Catholics had the same thought when they saw Cerularius, Luther, Henry VIII, and Calvin bolt the fold to form their own divergent flocks. When viewed from the perspective of the Vatican, Jesus’ statement can sound like a veiled threat to the others: “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
Within the last century, the ecumenical stress on church unity has made it less likely that Presbyterians will regard, say, Lutherans or Anglicans as “other sheep.” Even so, there are vast differences in the ecclesial styles and beliefs of Christian churches. Some churches make gonads a condition of ordination, some invoke Jesus’ sacrifice by ingesting grape juice and Wonder bread, some sprinkle, some dunk. It would take a gigabyte of hard drive to track and classify all the “other sheep” out there.
One of the most appealing brands of Christianity is also one of the oldest. The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church trace their origins to A.D. 52 when the Apostle Thomas came to Kerala. Thomas, popularly known as “the doubter,” reportedly preached to a Jewish enclave that converted to Christianity.
When it comes to authorities on other sheep, few churches speak with greater credibility than the ancient St. Thomas Christian community in India. India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and hosts the world’s largest numbers of Zoroastrians and Baha’is. Christians in India have interacted with other faiths for centuries, and they have accumulated vast stores of wisdom about interfaith relations.
Several years ago I was among a group of ecumenists invited to meet a senior Metropolitan of one of the St. Thomas communities. He was tall with a long white beard, crinkly eyes, and a gentle smile. He wore a long pink frock and probably didn’t know that church journalists called him “The Pink Panther” behind his back. In contrast to his magnificent vestments, his bare, bony feet were festooned with tattered flip-flops.
The Metropolitan spoke softly to us American ecumenists as we balanced tea and biscuits on our laps. He made generous comments about the churches in the United States and the gracious welcome they had given him.
“We come from churches that are so different in so many ways, and yet we are all the same family because we all call on the name of Jesus,” he said soothingly. “And, dear brothers and sisters, when at last we come into his heavenly presence we may find that he is called by many other names as well.”
The metropolitan spoke with such quiet authority that most of us overlooked the radical possibilities in his words. Afterwards, on the drive home, we argued about what he meant. What other names is Jesus called? Was the metropolitan raising the same questions as Tim Rice, lyricist for Jesus Christ Superstar, who lets Judas ask the age-old questions:
Tell me what you think
About your friends at the top.
Now who’d you think besides yourself
Was the pick of the crop?
Buddha was he where it's at?
Is he where you are?
Could Muhammad move a mountain?
Or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?
These questions will endure as long as we live, and so will the debate about the identity of the “other sheep.”
While we are waiting to discover what, if any, other names Jesus is called, we can take comfort in the fact that we already know the most important answers.
For one, we know Jesus the Good Shepherd is not a rejecter of any sheep, regardless of who we are or what we believe. “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he said. He could have added: “No questions asked.” God sent Jesus to save all us sheep, regardless of whether we agree with each other or even like each other. God doesn’t worry about our differences. God loves us all – Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jains, Lutherans – all of us. And Jesus died for all of us.
Even so, we still wonder. Was Buddha where it’s at? What is the eternal relationship between Mohammad and Jesus? For Baptists who have for centuries been consigning Buddhists and Muslims to hell, these are awkward questions.
But we can waste a lot of time debating how God plans to save the other sheep, because God is in no hurry to tell us. And those of us who have been saved by our faith in Jesus Christ are not being asked to consider other paths to salvation.
But we cannot ignore the fact that God loves those who have not chosen our path, not can we disregard Jesus’ instructions to love those sheep as much as we love ourselves.
Presbyterian pastor Dr. Bryon E. Shafer writes “that in my dialogue with persons of a differing faith, I as a Christian encounter insights that bring me to a fuller and more dynamic understanding of God's truth. And indeed I have had such experiences.”
From Hindus [Shafer writes] I have re-learned what many Christians have under-emphasized, neglected, forgotten or even rejected-the truth and actuality of the incarnation as opposed to just its theory, the truth that God actually did come to live among us, in flesh.
And from Jews, I have learned what it means for a community to trust in the goodness of God-even in the face of such incomprehensible communal suffering as that which European Jewry experienced at the hands of the demonic evil of Adolf Hitler.
From Muslims, I have learned the value of practicing the presence of God in the everyday routines of life.
And, yes, I have in fact learned something from Buddhism as well. I have learned the importance of freeing myself from the dominance of ego and of getting in touch with my interior world.
So, I, as a Christian, do have God's truth to share with others. And I also have more of God's truth to learn from others.
Once we understand that, we can suspend our frustrating debates over the identity of the “other sheep” and focus on the ovine metaphor that assures us God will not rest until all us sheep are safe.
“So Jesus told them this parable: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulder and rejoices.” (Luke 15:3-5.)
Given the malodorous reality of sheep, the ultimate message must be that God loves all of us more than we can possibly imagine.