Fourth Sunday in Easter
It is a dangerous thing to preach about sheep to people who know more about sheep that you do. I’m not quite that dumb. I have nothing to say about ranching, sheering, lambing, or butchering. I won’t offer comment on fodder, spacing, or breeds. I do have a comment on sheep physiology, though. Even that is risky, but I did a lot of research (science reading, not theological) and I did attempt to talk to a couple people about my questions.
Sheep have excellent vision- in their peripherals. Due to having eyes on the side of their heads, they can see things sneaking up on them from the right, left, and behind. This is called monocular vision, which means each eye has its own field of view and the eyes do not share a field of view. Binocular vision, what humans have, is when both eyes receive the same information at the same time- in the best of circumstances.
Due to monocular vision, sheep can see to their sides and when they lower their heads to graze, they can see very well around them. However, monocular vision does sacrifice depth perception. This means sheep can have a small blind spot right in front of them, when their heads are raised. You may observe this if you see a sheep run into the fence instead of going through the empty gate.
The author of Psalm 23 spent enough time with sheep to be able to perceive some of these realities of sheep physiology. Guiding sheep to green pastures not only meant taking sheep to fresh graze, but also guiding them over changes in terrain that might make them balky. Leading them beside still waters meant bringing them to safe places to drink. In a desert climate, stagnant water could create illness. A still pond, perhaps fed by a stream, could help thirsty sheep, but they might need to be watched if it was a deep pool.
Monocular vision offers safety in the periphery, but as sheep evolved superior vision from side to side- they sacrificed vision that looks up. Since sheep have been domesticated for thousands of years, sheep haven’t often needed to look up into trees to watch for predators. Shepherds do that. This means that traveling through a valley needs the shepherd to be with the sheep because the sheep are not able to look up at the terrain where threats might be present.
Shepherds were used as a metaphor for good kings in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Shepherds cared for an important resource- sheep. Shepherds provided for the needs of the sheep, kept them safe, and guided them through all kinds of weather and terrain. Thus, these seemed like transferable characteristics for a good king. This meant that the king’s people, then, became synonymous with sheep. While this metaphor has often meant associating people with the worst (often imagined) qualities of sheep, the whole purpose of the comparison was about the king, not the people.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd, then, is not about us as sheep, but about who He is and what he does. We have binocular vision- seeing ahead of us. Yet, we also have a blind spot there. We do not know the future. Rather, we have to trust the shepherd who provides for our needs, guides us to safety, and accompanies us through treacherous times and places. This same shepherd seeks us out when we stray and guides us back to the fold.
Trusting in Jesus’ voice and his provision is what it means to have abundant life. Unfortunately, many of us like the idea of trusting, but find the execution difficult. Following Jesus into our blind spot definitely means acknowledging that we are not in control.
When we instead look to the sides, where there are many temptations, or back, to what we knew before, it is very tough to move forward in faith. Thus, the Church and church people often intellectualize faith- making it about “believing” the right things, meaning knowing the right information in your head. Jesus, however, has never described faithfulness in this way. Particularly in the Fourth Gospel (John), faith equals abiding with Jesus. This means pitching your tent in Jesus’ campsite and following his rules. It also means recognizing that the ways of the world do not offer you the abundant life- peace, joy, and grace- that can only come from the Good Shepherd who provides for your needs.
In this time of change and stress, what we can see to the sides and behind us is often far more appealing that the unknown future. We are tempted by voices that promise things that seem to give a better sense of control or offer choices that open doors we wish weren’t closed. If we wish to be disciples of Jesus, to be the sheep of His flock, then we must weigh these voices against His voice. We must carefully compare what they offer us against what our good Shepherd offers.
This way of living can be tough. It may put us at odds with others in our family, in our community, even in our church. Yet no one else in these settings offers us what Jesus does- provisions, safety, accompaniment, and guidance in all situations. The leading we need- into the blind spot of the future- should only be entrusted to a Shepherd who is willing to die for us (and who already has).