I am a vegetarian and I grew up in the suburbs. Therefore, what little I know of sheep I know from what others with more livestock experience have told me. In light of the widespread metaphors about shepherds, flocks, lambs and other pasture and barnyard creatures that we find in scripture, preachers and theology teachers have been some of my greatest informers about the nature of these farm animals.
Naturally, I turned to their instruction when I encountered the first of this week’s readings: sheep, with their tiny brains, are incredibly stupid animals. Thus, they desperately rely on their shepherd to survive. Ezekiel employs this metaphor to assert that we, like sheep, helplessly rely on the mercy of God, our Divine Shepherd, to survive. The repetition of “I will” and “I myself” serves to emphasize God’s agency as the shepherd directly responsible for the endurance of the dependent flock.
When I discovered more sheep in the Gospel reading, however, I was surprised to find that Christ’s pronouncements challenged my limited knowledge of sheep. Unlike the lessons I commonly encountered in church and bible studies, Jesus does not characterize the livestock as simple, helpless animals. On the contrary, his sheep are attentive to the needs of the world, particularly among “the least.” Christ actually chastises those who do not utilize their agency, acting on their responsibility to care for Christ by caring for others.
So, then, what does it mean to be a farm animal in the Divine Shepard’s flock? In the kin-dom of “Christ the King”? Do these readings call us, God’s livestock, to humbly acknowledge our dependence on God’s mercy, or do they demand that we acknowledge our free agency by taking responsibility for our interactions with other members of the flock?
In an effort to create the most comprehensive notion of “we, the sheep,” I began to wonder whether an awareness of God’s mercy can—and should—lead to the type of agency Christ expects, rather than a meek self-image that leaves me feeling ineffectual.
Who are we, the flock? And who is this Shepherd, Christ the King, who provides and needs, forgives and demands?
Jessica Coblentz is 22, and she writes from her parents’ house in the Seattle area. She currently utilizes her Religious Studies degree as a nanny for the cutest pair of toddlers in town.