Balancing Acts – Sheep

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by Tom Beutel

All we like sheep have gone astray;

    we have turned—every one—to his own way. Isaiah 53:6 (ESV)

I’m not sure when exactly it was that I developed an interest in sheep. Probably it was on the first trip to England that my wife and I made in 2009. It was our 30th wedding anniversary and I had just retired from university teaching. We had never really had a “proper” vacation as we had mainly traveled to see family.

On that first trip to England we encountered sheep “up close and personal,” on walks and on the road, nearby and in the distance. Many of the public footpaths in England run right through pastures of grazing sheep, literally hundreds of them. And in certain places, Dartmoor for example, sheep roam freely, crossing or even napping in roads.

The Bible is filled with references to and images of sheep. Two stand out – that of Jesus as the Lamb of God and that of humanity as sheep in need of a shepherd. It is this second metaphor that has haunted me lately.

First, we learn from the 23rd Psalm, that sheep prosper when they have good pastures and a cool drink.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

                                    He makes me lie down in green pastures.

                                    He leads me beside still waters. Psalms 23: 1-2 (ESV)

But we also learn, from Isaiah 53:6, that sheep are inclined to wander from the green pastures and the still waters. They are not content to simply enjoy their good fortune. Or, if they have not been led to green pastures and still waters, they strike out on their own to find them.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

                                    we have turned—every one—to his own way; Isaiah 53:6 (ESV)

Handel’s Messiah renders Isaiah’s lament beautifully. Take a moment to listen:

Given this commentary on humanity by the prophet, which Jesus certainly knew, one would perhaps expect a somewhat harsh response on His part. Why are you wandering from what is good for you? Why do you not look to God, who has provided for and cared for you for generations, for your needs? Why do you go your own way?

Instead, Jesus has compassion.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and                                     helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36 (ESV)

Our temptation, at least mine anyway, is to focus on people’s selfishness and ignorance as they look vainly for help and answers. We are selfish and ignorant. We do “go our own way.” In some cases there is real need – a place to live, a job, food to eat. In others we simply do not have what we want. In either case we follow empty promises and look for well-being in the wrong places.

In spite of this, Jesus “had compassion, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This is the message that has been trying to work its way into my thinking and into my heart this Christmas season. Instead of seeing people as selfish and ignorant, or even as foolish, can we see them as “sheep without a shepherd?” As ones who are “harassed and helpless” and have compassion?

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.


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