There Are No Lone Sheep — Just Lost Sheep

SCRIPTURES & ART: If sheep wander off from their shepherd, they’re apt to lose their lives.

Cornelius Van Leemputten (1841-1902), “Sheep”
Cornelius Van Leemputten (1841-1902), “Sheep” (photo: Public Domain)

Cornelius Van Leemputten was a 19th-century Belgian painter whose specialty was sheep. He painted many scenes of sheep and barnyards. That’s why he’s featured for this week’s Gospel.

I can’t identify if the illustration above is a single Leemputten painting or part of a bigger painting cropped out by some avidly ovine social media fan. Regardless, it makes Jesus’ (and my) point: you don’t find lone sheep.

You’ve heard of lone wolves. Not lone sheep.

In this past pandemic year, we’ve heard a lot about “herd immunity” – that if enough members of a given population become immune to a disease, whether by contracting it or being vaccinated, the overall population’s risk decreases because there are fewer contagious individuals to which one might be exposed. “Rugged individualist” sheep are not trailblazers. They’re usually endangered, often hurt, typically “lost sheep.”

It’s a staple of most preaching that sheep are not particularly smart. They follow the herd. If they wander off, they’re apt to lose their lives. They’re exposed to predators. “There’s safety in numbers.” 

Because of this, sheep need shepherds. Sheep and shepherds form bonds, enough that even if herds mix, the voice of the shepherd attracts his sheep to separate from the larger group and “follow him.” 

Our language bears witness to this. Sheep are not leaders. (Notice even our language’s default is to plural sheep?) Indeed, to call people “sheep” (again, that plural) is to emphasize characteristics not belonging to leaders: as Merriam-Webster defines it, “timid, docile, usually easily led.”

That’s why Jesus has pity on the crowd.

Crowds, too, are often easily led. They want to be led, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Leaders need followers; we can’t all be chiefs. That’s true of ordinary society and the Mystical Body of Christ: “the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I do not need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). 

When sheep — and people — follow leaders, it can be for their good. Sometimes, however, it is not for their weal but their woe. The demagogue, the rabble rouser, the sophist, the charlatan all prey on crowds, just like the “shepherds who lose and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” as Jeremiah (23:1) warns against in the First Reading. The false shepherd and the hireling are excoriated in both the Old (e.g., Zechariah 11:17; Ezekiel 34:1-9; Jeremiah 10:21) and New (John 10:8, 10; 1 Peter 5:2) Testaments. 

Is that why our sheep seems to have a tear in his eye?

Consider today’s Gospel. The Apostles had been sent out “two by two.” They’re back, excited about “their” achievements. Even though they’ve earned a rest, “people were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” 

Shepherds are shepherds, not gardeners in rose gardens. Their lives are tough. They have to be alert. They have to be ready to intervene at the first sign of danger. They have to take initiative, trudging off into slippery and isolated places in search of errant stupid sheep. But they do it, not out of some utilitarian calculus (does it make sense to leave 99 sheep to look for one?) but because there is a caring and concerned relationship.

The best shepherds recognized that, while they sometimes even legitimately wanted rest, it might not be the shepherd’s lot. St. John Vianney spent hours in the confessional only to continue his battles with the Evil One at home. St. Francis Xavier did not clock up travel miles in comfortable planes. St. Maximilian Kolbe did not have to take a step forward from the Auschwitz roll call line. 

Jesus wants His returned disciples to recharge spiritually, too. They “went off by boat to a deserted place.”

But herd instincts know a good thing when they feel it … and recognize a good shepherd when they find one. While Jesus and his disciples are in transit, the crowd precedes him to their destination.

And Jesus gives the true shepherd example. He does not dismiss the crowd. He does not point to rectory hours or “leave a message.”

“His heart was moved with pity, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

But that we all have the heart of such a shepherd! Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd as well as the “Gate” (John 10, 11, 9). Shepherds do not just prop the sheepfold door open. They have to be gatekeepers that regulate ingress and egress. That sometimes means they have to call out “stop” when a sheep is sick or threatens the rest of the flock. 

Let us pray for such real shepherds.