(The Nationalist, 15 April 2005)
Nearly thirty years ago, when I was based in New Zealand, I went on one occasion to the far south of the South Island, and spent a little time on a farm there. One day, when out with the farmer, I saw something which made me wonder if I was “seeing things”, or just simply going crazy: I saw a hill moving. That sounds crazy, but I was there looking at it. The hill was in front of me, some distance away, and it was moving, though remaining in the same place. The farmer asked me if I knew what I was looking at. I knew it wasn’t a landslide because they don’t move sideways. But it looked like one in slow motion. I said I couldn’t understand it, and he then told me I was looking at 30,000 sheep, all moving together on the hillside. They covered it completely and gave the impression that the hill was moving. It was what New Zealanders call a ‘mob’ – not a flock – of sheep.
If you’ve ever watched TV programmes of a shepherd and his dog, you’ll have seen the dog snapping at the sheep’s heels if they’re slow to move.
The Gospel is different. There is no mention of a sheep-dog, no snapping at heels, no barking to frighten the sheep so that they do what the shepherd wants. The shepherd’s crook is not for beating the sheep, but for catching hold of them if they go into danger where the shepherd’s arm can’t reach them. The shepherd leads the sheep; they follow him; he doesn’t drive them. The shepherd knows the sheep individually and calls them by name; they aren’t a mob, but a group of individuals. The shepherd is not a hired hand, but is committed. If a lion attacked, the shepherd was expected to stand and defend the sheep.
The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, wrote, ‘In the eyes of God… all the millions that have lived, and now live, do not make a crowd. God sees only each individual’. (The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Peter Rhode, Citadel Press, New York, 1960, s.127)
Christianity is not for the sheepish. There are lots of parables telling us to wake up and be ready to take risks. It is for people who commit themselves to following the lead that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gives.
What kind of lead is that? Jesus gave himself fully to God the Father: ‘I do only the things that please Him’. He also gave himself fully for others: ‘I lay down my life of my own free will’. Jesus was called the ‘Lamb of God’. The word translated as ‘lamb’ also means ‘servant’. The followers of Jesus are those who serve God. To follow Jesus means to belong to his family by being (adult) children of God.
For those in a hurry:
‘This above all –
to thine own self be true,
and then it must follow,
as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man’.
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 78-80)