I have always heard that sheep are stupid. The biblical references that come up in the lectionary on “Good Shepherd Sunday,” comparing the people of God to sheep, ought, I thought, to humble us. We are foolish and clueless like sheep, in need of the guidance of a shepherd who has our best interests at heart.
Sheep will follow one another into a ditch or off of a cliff, I have been told on good authority. The implication of this zoological insight has always been that people are all too liable to follow one another into trouble, that we also tend to let the group lead us without thinking for ourselves about the destination. All of which may be true. A very minor example is speed--everyone drives too fast on the highway, even though it’s more dangerous and makes for worse gas mileage. But we do not think about it logically. Essentially everyone drives too fast because everyone drives too fast. We set one another’s standard of behavior—like sheep. And that thoughtlessness makes for bad stewardship, at least.
But it turns out that sheep are not as stupid as they look. They stay close to one another because a group of sheep tends to intimidate predators in a way that a single sheep does not. The wolf or mountain lion is far more inclined to attack a sheep on its own, separated from the flock. When they stay in the flock, each sheep is protecting itself, and all sheep are protecting each other. They are in a sense a whole organism made up of many individuals—they stand or fall, prosper or starve, as a flock. The wisdom of this kind of community is not the kind we Americans usually value. We invented the rugged individualist, the free-thinker, the maverick. But the Bible calls us to value the flock. We are to stick together, to protect one another, and to trust in a guidance beyond our own intelligence. The Bible isn’t telling us we’re stupid—though it may imply that we are not quite as smart as we imagine. The Bible does tell us that we’re part of one another, interdependent. Our spiritual and ultimately even our physical survival is accomplished in community. To seek salvation or peace or happiness alone is a doomed proposition and leaves the world with less sheep and better fed predators.