This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:27–30:

Jesus said:

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

We hear quite a bit about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s one of the earliest icons of the Christians, with such artistic references going back almost to the beginning of the church. The Gospels and the epistles make several such metaphors, with today’s reading being just one of them. It’s a soothing image, with Jesus as someone ready to find the strays and sacrifice His life to save His flock.

The usage of this imagery struck me as peculiar in another way when hearing it at Mass yesterday. What does it mean for us to be called “sheep”? After all, it’s not usually meant as a compliment. People talk about others acting like sheep in order to describe an easily misled mob, or an easily dominated group. Sheep aren’t exactly well known for their courage and fight, either. Even in our most potent American mythology — the Old West– sheep and sheepherders are considered one of the lowest stations on the agricultural/social ladder.

And because of the way my mind works — yes, you can insert a joke here — I started thinking about all of the other animals we tend to associate with more positive qualities. The eagle is proud, the bull and the ox are strong, and even the hyenas are clever in a malevolent sort of way. Athletic teams take on the personas of the Bobcats, Tigers, Falcons, Cougars, and Buffaloes in order to draw comparisons to their competitiveness and zeal. Heck, we even have a Horned Frogs team, a Terrapin (which is a small edible turtle), the Fighting Pickles, and the Banana Slugs.

There aren’t any sheep or lambs in sight. A few teams call themselves the Rams, but it’s not quite the same connotation. Not too many people seem anxious to cover themselves in sheep’s clothing except for the metaphorical wolves in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 7:15) who want to use it as a ruse to prey on the sheep themselves.

Nevertheless, this is a metaphor chosen by Christ Himself, used repeatedly, and clearly in a manner for us to contemplate. So what are we to learn from being on Team Sheep? Are we to be a mindless mob, responding to orders without thinking, as the more modern view tells us?

Not at all, of course, although it’s still not far off from the point. The Lord does not consider us mindless and hopeless; if He did, He would never have allowed us to possess free will and the divine spark. He loves us and wants us to love Him in return for our own benefit. When Adam and Eve decided that they could know good and evil as well as God, however, the power of sin entered into human life, which we deal with to this day.

And sin is what can make us into sheep. We become easily led astray based on our disordered impulses — our pride, our gluttony, our desire for material power and wealth. Sin becomes wolves of a sort, preying on God’s people and picking us off individually and stampeding us in herds. We become lost out of our own insistence that we’re not really lost at all, but heading in the right direction even as we make circles and backtrack continuously. This all happens because we reject the Lord’s Word and believe we can perfect ourselves without His grace.

This is also why the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd is so beautiful and appealing. In our hearts, we know we have gone astray. We thought we were Falcons or Monarchs or Trojans, when in fact we weren’t even Rams. At some point, we realize that we need a Good Shepherd, not because we can’t think and reason for ourselves, but because our reasoning has revealed the limits of who we really are, and the limitless possibilities of who we can be in Christ. And like any good shepherd, Christ is there to lead us to those possibilities in the way that only He can. He gave His life to get us there, and all we need now do is follow.

In this metaphor, and in its sense of knowing who we are and what we are called to do, the sheep are the smartest animals in the kingdom. They hear the Savior’s voice and follow it, which is more than we can say about the Mustangs, the Lobos, and the Chanticleers. Count me on Team Sheep, and teach me a few cheers along the way.

The front-page image is from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.