The sheep is an extremely passive animal. Being a member of a herd, it possesses very little individuality or imagination. Is it not insulting to Christians, therefore, to be likened to sheep? Yet both the Old and New Testaments are replete with references to God’s followers as sheep, God himself, assuming the role of shepherd.
The eagle and the lion, on the other hand, are impressive figures and are proud and fitting emblems for America and Great Britain. Charles Lindbergh was acclaimed America’s greatest hero of the 20th Century and dubbed the “Lone Eagle” for his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. But who wants to be compared with a sheep?
Andrew Napolitano’s 2007 book, “A Nation of Sheep,” is intended to arouse Americans from their sheeplike passivity. He maintains that the federal government is circumventing the Constitution and systematically dismantling the rights and freedoms that are the foundation of American democracy. As a result, according to Napolitano, American citizens are becoming like sheep, blindly following wherever they are led. William J. Lederer’s book by the same name, from the early 1960s, may be even more relevant today.
If it insults Americans to refer to them as sheep, why should it not also insult Christians? To answer this conundrum, the first thing we must understand is that the Scriptural use of the word “sheep” is a metaphor, not an expression of identity.
A metaphor represents a likeness to its subject, but only in certain aspects. When Romeo salutes Juliet as “the sun,” he is calling attention to her beauty, brilliance and uniqueness, but is not suggesting that she is an incandescent extraterrestrial body. Metaphors always leave out more than they include.
It is appropriate to employ the metaphor of sheep to God’s followers for three reasons in particular: 1) that they are vulnerable; 2) that they are communal; 3) that they need leadership, nourishment and protection.
Perhaps the most comforting and frequently cited passage from the Old Testament is Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
We are vulnerable because we are mortal, given to fear and prone to error. We are communal beings and are commanded to love our neighbor. We need guidance to navigate through the tribulations of life and save our souls. We need a shepherd.
A common criticism of Catholics is that they cannot think for themselves and need a Church and a pope to do the thinking for them. The truth, however, is that human beings are indeed sheeplike when it comes to thinking for themselves, especially about the larger issues of human existence.
St. Thomas Aquinas regarded the need for Revelation sufficiently important to make it the first question in his voluminous Summa Theologica. It was necessary for God to reveal certain truths to man because, for the Angelic Doctor, “the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors” (ST, I, Q.1; a.1).
Aquinas would agree with Shakespeare’s depiction of man as “the quintessence of dust” for man is a humble creature who has a lofty destiny. He is a strange blend of earth-dust and starlight.
Human beings are called “sheep” only for certain reasons, in particular, to emphasize their vulnerability, communal nature, and need for leadership. At the same time, each person is regarded as possessing infinite value. Man’s communal nature allows him to super-exist through knowledge and love. And his need for a leader is a basis for his friendship with God. Man is a sheep who does not remain a sheep.
It is a wholesome and salutary thing to know that we are sheep so that we avoid the pitfalls of pride. Paradoxically, by accepting this humble state, we begin our journey to becoming fulfilled persons, loving neighbors, and friends of God. We are sheep with noble aspirations. But these aspirations will not be met unless we accept our need for the Divine Shepherd.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of HLI America, an Initiative of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Conn.