People are most like sheep in their yearning for a shepherd that will care for them. There is something deep inside that longs for someone we can trust who will walk ahead of us– leading us in safety and caring about what happens to us. We were created for a Shepherd. The shepherd model is found already in the Old Testament where we find God referred to as a Shepherd long before people dared to call Him Father. The fact that Psalm 23 is such a well known and favored passage of Scripture shows us how much people today still crave a shepherd.
Today’s generation may not care for church politics, creeds, traditions, or ceremonies, but they still respond to a shepherd who reaches out to them with a heart of love. Rebellious young people who want nothing to do with rules, will still respond to love and acts of kindness of a gentle shepherd.
Jesus called Himself “the Good Shepherd” and set an example of what shepherding is to look like. He was willing to leave a life of glory to live a humble life of servanthood among His sheep. His shepherding brought forth healthy mature sheep who then became under-shepherds to other sheep. And those shepherds did the same.
God is still the Great Shepherd that walks ahead of His sheep. Under-shepherds are still to lead the sheep as they follow Him. However, throughout the Old Testament, we read of under-shepherds who failed in their role of shepherding. There are numerous references in which the prophets chastise shepherds who are not leading their flocks right or are allowing them to scatter with no attempt to search for them. (Jer. 50: Ezek.34)
I have seen good Anabaptist under-shepherds who loved and led their flocks well. I have also witnessed shepherds who do not seem to understand what being a shepherd means. In moving away from the New Testament model seen first in Jesus, and then in His disciples, they become more like rulers and dictators than shepherds. When shepherds think their job is more about making laws and discipline and forcing obedience, they become tyrants instead, wanting sovereignty over their kingdoms.
The goal of shepherding is to have healthy, full grown sheep to present to the Great Shepherd someday. Many of our leaders look at their sound flocks and confidently look forward to presenting them. And we do have a lot of healthy churches.
But what about all those sheep that we have lost?
One of the greatest failures of Anabaptist shepherd leaders today is in overlooking the aspect of being a shepherd who is not only a leader, but also a rescuer. Sheep wander from the herd and get lost easily. They make many foolish decisions and get separated from the flock. But they cannot survive alone. They need a rescuer.
We like to show off our healthy flocks, our obedient sheep, our many sweet lambs within the fold. People take note of how our sheep are well groomed, well-behaved, and we have very few visible trouble makers. We have a great culture and we like to boast that we have healthier flocks than most other denominations.
But why do we?
Have we culled out the weak and sickly? Do we turn our backs on the ones who wander off? Do we chase off the ones who question rules or rebel? Do we have more of a “survival of the fittest” mind set than we realize in our efforts to gain a utopian society/culture?
We are not following the Great Shepherd’s example of being a Rescuer and Great Physician for the sheep. Jesus said He was sent to the “lost sheep“,(Matt. 15:24) and when He sent out His disciples, He told them to go to the “lost sheep” (Matt. 10:6). When the Pharisees questioned Him for being with publicans and sinners, He said, “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. I came not for the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) He spoke of a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in his flock to search for one that wandered off. He spoke of a woman sweeping and searching her entire house in her efforts to find what was lost. There can be no doubt that His purpose, His heart, was to lost, straying, disobedient, sickly sheep.
How can we disregard His example? How can we think it is more important to keep our healthy, well-groomed flocks than it is to go after our straying sheep?
Faithfully preaching and feeding the faithful, obedient sheep in our flock is not enough. We must care about the unhealthy or straying sheep, and go to extreme measures for them. We must learn how to treat a sick conscience, care for hurting bleeding hearts, apply balm to wounds, and speak healing words to grief stricken people.
We cannot take a personal affront at sheep who make rebellious choices, we can’t harbor resentment at their foolish choices, we can’t be nettled at their backsliding and lagging behind the rest. We can’t allow thoughts of relief when they have left the herd and are no longer our problem.
When Jesus looked at the multitudes, He was “moved with compassion on them, because they fainted and were scattered abroad , as sheep having no shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)
Do we even care about the sheep that are scattered and no longer have a shepherd? Where is our compassion for those who once were part of a flock but because of their own wanderings no longer have a shepherd? Do we say within ourselves, “They are the ones who chose to leave. They know the door is open and they can come back anytime they choose to. It’s their own fault for making these choices. Let them find out how hard it is.”
Why have we closed our hearts to those who do not agree with us on every point? Where is our compassion? Why aren’t our hearts wounded at the loss of even one sheep? Why aren’t we weeping over them as Jesus wept? Why are we so complacent when Jesus was willing to lay down His life for that very one that we have decided is not worth our efforts?
Jesus sought out those wasted lives. He sent the “bench-warmers”, (the inactive ones) to work in the vineyards, He befriended the rebellious, disobedient ones (the publicans and sinners) by sitting and building relationships with them. He broke down the walls built around those in His midst with slightly differing viewpoints (the Samaritans) by not keeping the traditions of His people. His kindness to one Samaritan woman captured the heart of an entire nation!
Why are we content to groom our healthy herd when reaching even one lost individual is what Jesus would rather we do? Do we not care that scattered, hungry, needy sheep will follow false shepherds or have their very life snuffed out by wolves?
We don’t need platform speakers who wax eloquent. We don’t need more heavy-handed leaders with bigger rule books and doctrinal statements. We need shepherds who love sheep. We need shepherds who talk with, commune with, sacrifice themselves for, and win the hearts of their sheep. We need shepherds with a gentle approach, a sympathetic touch, full of the Holy Spirit who persuade tenderly with the Word of God. We need shepherds who are willing to carry the young or broken when it is needed, shepherds that are willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of their flock.
A shepherd who regards himself as being in a separate class than those in his flock has forgotten that he, too, is a sheep. If a shepherd is cynical or dislikes his sheep, he is not spending enough time with them. It is in spending time with his sheep that he will see what they are facing and face it with them. He will understand what their suffering is because he suffers with them. He will care about their plight because close contact stirs the heart.
A shepherd needs to be with his sheep so much that he smells like them. He must know his sheep and what their needs are so his sermons can be timely and relevant. He must have many conversations with them so he can speak their language when he preaches. He must be so attached to them that when danger comes, he won’t even think of himself but only the safety of his sheep.
A shepherd like this holds the hearts of his sheep. Sheep that are motivated by a shepherd they love, will follow willingly. They will be devoted to him because they know they are loved. Even a rebel who tears a rule book to shreds will respond to acts of kindness and love shown by a shepherd who has time for him.
Shepherds will be asked to give account for the sheep God has given them. (Heb. 13:17) He didn’t overlook the shepherds’ lack of care for the lost sheep of Israel and He will not overlook it today. Someday every shepherd will stand before God and hear the words asked to Peter. Did you feed my lambs? Did you tend my sheep? Did you feed my sheep?
4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. Ezekiel 34:4-10