Have you ever worked with sheep?
True story. Many years ago, for a very short time (about a half hour), my brother had a sheep. Not by choice. It wandered across the fields and broke into his cow pasture. It was alone, which for a sheep is literally (as you will see) a fate worse than death. So this solitary sheep was trying hard to herd up with whatever group of critters it could find. In a pinch even Herefords would do. So my brother's cows were confronted with something they had never seen -- a sheep. A puffy white demon on spindly legs, running toward them like they were long lost cousins. So they ran away. And the lonely sheep ran after them. Three or four times they raced up and down the pasture, this one desperate sheep chasing fifty or sixty cows. After the fourth lap the cows decided they'd had enough and they turned on the sheep and trampled it. So my brother had to go up in the north pasture, find the badly injured sheep, and finish it off.
Sheep are stupid sometimes.
A little over a year ago my brothers and I were elk hunting in Colorado. We shared the high country with about a million (I'm not kidding) sheep, six or eight dogs, and two shepherds. The sheep grazed and grazed and grazed in the high meadows. Every now and then a handful would wander off into the woods nearby where coyotes and cougars waited. The dogs chased them back. But when the shepherd appeared at the far end of the meadow and called his high, trailing call, the sheep dropped whatever they were doing (grazing mostly) and headed that direction. They didn't know where they were going, but they had heard the shepherd's voice. Some of them, to be honest, had not heard a thing, but the tail end of the sheep ahead of them was headed downhill and they followed. Sheep are followers.
Maybe that's part of the deal. Jesus wants us to follow him. Too often I'm trying to be a dog or a horse or a pig -- anything but a stupid follower of a sheep -- and I want to make up my own mind. So when I hear the shepherd's voice I say, "Nope, still lots of good grass here, don't think I'm leaving yet. Lots of grazing here. This is a good place." Pretty soon I'm a lonely sheep on a hillside, all by myself. And we already know that this is not a good thing for a sheep. Even if there were a few other sheep there with me, the shepherd has gone. And when the shepherd has left the meadow, the sheep are in trouble. Because sooner or later the grass will run out or the snows will come or the coyotes will sing and we'll be on our own.
Follow the shepherd. Now.
You start to get the picture? Jesus doesn't call us sheep as a compliment. He's not saying we're pure and white and fuzzy and soft and beautiful. Only people who have never been close to sheep think that. He's not insulting us, either. He's simply telling us the truth. We're sheep. We can't exist on our own. With apologies to John Wayne and the rest of that crew, we are not able to make it as the solitary hero of our own fantasy. We're left alone on the mountainside in the dark if we do not follow the shepherd.
So where is Jesus going?