Why Sheep? – Francis Alvarez, SJ

Sheep (including lambs, ewes, and rams) are the most mentioned animals in Scripture. And in many instances in their flock of appearances, sheep are used as metaphors for the people of God. To bleat out a few verses, in Ezekiel 34:30-31, we read, “They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.” In Psalm 78:52-53, we sing, “He led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid.” In our Gospel today, we hear Jesus lovingly tell us, “I will lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). There must be something about sheep that can teach us about how to be God’s people.

Doing some research on sheep (scientific name: Ovis aries), I stumbled upon a few facts that just made me go, “Baa!” For example, I found out that when tennis racquets were still made from sheep gut, the intestines of seven sheep were needed to string a racquet head. But I also learned a few things worth chewing on and ruminating about.

Keith Kendrick and his colleagues at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England have proven that sheep possess keen memories. They can remember as many as fifty human and sheep faces. Their recall is not just visual but also auditory. Sheep can distinguish between the cries of other sheep and also between the voices of humans. On YouTube, there are a number of clips showing how sheep respond the call of their shepherd (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e45dVgWgV64). There is scientific basis to Jesus’ words, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me” (John 10:14).

The YouTube video above can make recognizing the voice of the shepherd look easy, but in real life, this is not always our experience. The good spirit does not always have an angelic chorus singing in the background. The bad spirit does not always sound like it is stifling a sinister laugh. Moreover, knowing the voice of the Shepherd can be especially difficult when we are not just deciding between good and bad but discerning between good and better. Should I stay here in the Philippines, barely earning enough to scrape by, but at least I am with my spouse and children? Or should I take my chances abroad, be able to send dollars home, but be away from my family? Should I run for office? Should I take this road or that, with both being equally less traveled? Where does God want me to go?

In 2006, around 400 sheep were killed in the eastern part of Turkey. They plunged to their deaths as they tried to cross a deep ravine. Why did they do such a stupid thing? It was because one sheep strayed and the rest of the flock followed. They were following another sheep and not their shepherd.

We can be deceived, and we can deceive ourselves that we are following God’s will when in truth, we seek only to justify our own motives and desires. Then we attempt to beatify and canonize our plans by saying, “I prayed about this.” However, our prayer is not always a listening to but often a dictating to God.

How can we stop ourselves from blindly flocking after just another sheep? How can we see when we are following only our own wills and not God’s? How can we know the Shepherd’s voice better? Our space here is not enough to adequately discuss discernment, but sheep can again teach us a very important lesson. When a sheep falls on its back, it cannot get up on its feet again without any help. The structure of its bones and muscles compounded by the weight of its fleece make it almost impossible to right itself. Sheep really need their shepherd to stand and walk again. In a similar way, to be able to stay on the right path, our greatest need and desire should be for the Shepherd – not for other sheep, not for verdant pastures, not for refreshing waters.

Even before we find ourselves flailing, hands thrashing about grasping nothing, feet up in the air going nowhere, even before we fall on our backs helpless, we should try to acknowledge – and be grateful – for our great need for God. We cannot do anything without our Shepherd.

This though is a difficult truth to admit and accept. It is one of the hardest lessons to learn because even though we say we should know it before failure knocks on our door, many times we understand it only after failure has kicked the door down, barged inside our house, and stolen everything we have.

One of the wisest things the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, ever shared with my community was this challenge: Celebrate failure. How can we celebrate failure when after doing everything to avoid it, we are shamefully dragged through the mud by it? We can celebrate failure if it can teach us that we cannot do things on our own. We can celebrate our weaknesses and mistakes if they help us experience how needing God can be the best gift we can ever receive. We can celebrate the sheep getting lost if this leads to the sheep crying out and letting itself be found by the Good Shepherd.

Easter is not just a day or a week; Easter is an entire season. If you think about it, our continuing celebration of this Easter season would not be possible if not for what people without faith can only see as failure – the cross. This whole mystery reminds us of another reason why we can celebrate failure: People of faith know it will not end in failure. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us. But as our Gospel today proclaims, he has the power to take it up again. And he has the power to take us up with him. The Lamb once slain has received “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12), and the Lamb wants to share this with us. As he promises the sheep who need him and follow his voice, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).

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