Sigmund Freud was Right, Sheep are Lame
God Gets All the Verbs in the Gospel Story
The lectionary psalm is only fifty-five words, but I’d wager Psalm 23 is the most beloved— certainly it’s the most familiar— text in the entire Bible. “We cling to life through it,” my former teacher Ellen Charry says, “when the angel of death stalks our path.” The metaphor at the heart of the twenty-third psalm is an image that recurs throughout scripture. Fully half of the books of the Bible liken God’s relationship to us to that of a shepherd and his flock.
Jacob, who knew better than most what it means to wander and stray, is the first person in scripture to call God his shepherd. John frames his entire Gospel around the metaphor, beginning with John the Baptist’s acclamation “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and ending with the Risen Christ commissioning the formerly lost sheep, Peter, as a shepherd.
The very reason the image of God as Shepherd is such a refrain in scripture perhaps makes its cherished status somewhat ironic. Chances are, you’ve heard these lines about “thy rod and thy staff” recited or prayed or sung so many times you no longer hear the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
It’s not “The Lord is my Guide; I shall not fail to follow his way.”
It isn’t “The Lord is my Teacher; I shall not disobey.”
Nor is it “The Lord is my Guru; I shall not ignore his wisdom.”
The Lord as our Life Coach casts us in a more flattering position. But the Lord as our Shepherd? To profess that the Lord is your shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.
Sigmund Freud was correct; sheep are lame.
Sheep most often appear in scripture as hapless dolts. Even when they end up on the winning side of the divide, as in Jesus’s yarn in Matthew 25, they come off as dumb as rocks, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you?” To profess that God is your Shepherd is to confess that you are no more capable or impressive than an animal who is easily and happily domesticated for food.
Less familiar than Psalm 23 is the forty-fourth psalm that Paul quotes in his Epistle to the Romans:
“You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations…Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Translation: Clarice Starling notwithstanding, sheep are such stupid, helpless, self-involved animals that they are blissfully and absolutely ignorant of their surroundings, incapable of sensing danger and thus easily, happily led to their own slaughter.
Scripture says, “That’s you.”
Which is to say: Sheep need a shepherd.
As Ellen Charry writes:
The frequency of the shepherding motif in scripture owes less to Israel’s semi-nomadic origins and more to their lived experience that God’s people need to be led, cared for, and helped by someone more intelligent, able, and sophisticated than oneself.
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