In preparing a recent sermon, I was reminded of the apt comparisons David and Jesus made between sheep and humans – even if some of those comparisons are unflattering.
Most of us have not spent much time around sheep and shepherds. We do not have firsthand knowledge about how sheep live and how shepherds work. So, why do the words of David in Psalm 23 and those of Jesus in John 10 about sheep and shepherd carry so much meaning?
Perhaps we sense – at some level – that being human is a lot like being sheep. Sheep are intelligent, social and vulnerable. Sheep are also frightened by sudden, sharp and loud noises, lights and events.
Shepherds keep sheep together to protect them from predators because sheep are not able to outrun or outfight wolves and other predators. Also, sheep prefer to eat grass that is closer to the root than do cattle, which means care must be taken to move the flock so that the sheep do not overgraze a particular range.
David and Jesus understood that people need God for the same reason sheep need shepherds. Like sheep, humans are intelligent. Like sheep, humans need and function best in community. And, like sheep, humans are vulnerable to threatening forces described in Scripture as “thieves and wolves.”
“Today, political, commercial and religious thieves and wolves are threatening humanity and the creation.”
We are threatened by hostile people and powers which function like thieves and wolves. We are threatened by vicious and greedy people. We are threatened by cruel and violent people. We are threatened by hateful and oppressive people. We are threatened by abusive people.
In the same way that sheep can overgraze a range, humans are threatened by our own appetite. We are now experiencing climate change and global warming caused by human overconsumption of natural resources and use of fossil fuels that deplete the atmosphere. We are a threat to ourselves and the rest of the world.
Humans can become, in a real sense, thieves and wolves that threaten one another and the rest of the world. Or in the words of the cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Our hope is in the sovereignty, grace, provision and protection of God. “The Lord is my shepherd” and “my sheep hear my voice” declare that God is our defender, provider and guide. God has not left humanity defenseless. We are vulnerable, but not abandoned. We are weak, but not without protection. We go astray, but God is always determined to find and restore us.
God, like a shepherd, does this great work at a tremendous risk and accepts that risk because of great love. God is invested in humanity and the world. God is confident that we are worth the risk, the work, the trouble and that we are worth whatever else God needs to protect us, find us, lead us, nurture us and keep us from being snatched and devoured by people and forces – including ourselves – that function like thieves and wolves.
We need that assurance now like never before. When Jesus delivered his Good Shepherd teaching in John 10 his movement was threatened by political, commercial, and religious thieves and wolves. The same is true today.
“The good news of hope is that the grace of God for us is stronger than the thieves and wolves aligned against us.”
Political, commercial and religious thieves and wolves are threatening humanity and the creation. They terrorize immigrants. They destroy the environment. They use racism, religious nationalism, imperialism, materialism, sexism and militarism to sow hate, fear, violence and greed.
That is why Psalm 23 and John 10 hold so much power for us. Despite the thieves and wolves, we have the assurance that God is with us even when we walk through the darkest and most dangerous valleys. God is not scared of the thieves and wolves of our time, or of all time. God will not lose us. God will not let us go. God will not be bullied by political, commercial and religious thieves and wolves, whether they appear as Egyptian taskmasters and rulers, Roman colonizers, 21st-century crooks and liars, or in other disguises.
The good news of hope is that the grace of God for us is stronger than the thieves and wolves aligned against us. That deep and lasting meaning of “eternal life” now, even in the face of “dangers, toils, and snares” and “thieves and wolves,” is God’s assurance and summons to us to live courageously, cooperatively and joyfully in the world for God.