The metaphor of sheep and shepherding is crucial to understanding Jesus’ way of leading. The Bible describes Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10:11). Matthew 9:36-38 reads, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” The interesting thing is that this passage come right after a verse that reads, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35). During the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, Jesus could not shepherd everyone by himself. He needed others to help him care for the scattered sheep. He needed shepherds who would be with the sheep and guide them in his way.
Likewise, Peter wrote, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Most people today don’t have any experience with sheep. However, I grew up tending a flock on my dad’s farm, so I’ve had many conversations in response to the question, “What does it mean for small group leaders to be shepherds?” The original audiences of Scripture would have had a thorough knowledge of sheep and shepherding. Even if they did not have firsthand experience, they knew others who did or they had observed the life of sheep and shepherds in their villages. After all, sheep were as common then as smartphones are today.
The parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 can help us enter into the imagination of Jesus about leadership. It reads:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:1-7)
Jesus told parables in response to a situation. In this case, Jesus was eating with “tax collectors” and “sinners.” The first group was composed of notoriously dishonest men who had aligned themselves with Rome, the enemy of Israel. The second label was for those who, for a variety of reasons, had been excluded from fellowship with the supposed “righteous” members of the community. These “sinners” were not necessarily those who practiced immorality, but they may have been so poor that they had no means to know the law or try to keep it. As a result, they were religious outcasts. One such group of people who were labeled “sinners” were shepherds.
The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling because of this meal sharing. To understand why they were so upset, we need to understand the honor expressed in sharing a meal in Jesus’ time. To invite someone to share a meal was to extend peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness. It was a way of saying that another person was valued. In addition, the text implies that Jesus actually hosted meals for tax collectors and sinners. This would have been even more offensive than casually going to a sinner’s home. The host had a specific role at the meal in this culture. As the host Jesus would have complimented his guests, thereby honoring them around the table.
In response to the grumbling, Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep. He opened by saying, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep . . . ” Such a comment to the religiously pure would have been offensive because they did not own sheep; shepherding was an impure profession. To address his audience as “shepherds” implied that these men of means, these leaders of the community, these supposed insiders in the things of God were supposed to be shepherds who cared for God’s people. They were supposed to be servants of those in need. Ezekiel 34 goes into great depth about God’s expectations for Israel’s leaders to be shepherds to his people. The Old Testament prophet wrote about what the leaders of Israel failed to do:
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds who only care of yourselves! Should not the shepherds take care of the flock? You eat curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-6)
Likewise, the leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day failed to understand God’s call on them to be shepherds. In this parable, there are a hundred sheep. This would have been a large flock, as the average family would have had only five to fifteen sheep. Normally the owner of that many sheep would hire workers to attend his flock, but here the owner goes out himself to find the lost sheep. This is a direct challenge to the leaders of Israel to participate in God’s call to embrace those on the outside.
Shepherds usually work in pairs with flocks this size. When they realize a sheep is lost, one shepherd takes the flock back home while the other seeks the misplaced one. Experienced shepherds say lost sheep will lie down helplessly and refuse to budge. They are overcome by a sense of hopelessness and need someone to find them and save them. Once the shepherd finds a lost sheep, he must carry the animal a long distance.
In Jesus’ parable, when the first shepherd returned with the ninety-nine sheep, the neighbors would have noticed the other shepherd’s absence. There would have been great concern for the safety of the searching shepherd along with concern for the sheep. In that culture people within villages and towns were a connected community. A lost sheep or shepherd was a loss to the whole village. The recovery of the sheep would have been an occasion of joy for all.
When Jesus told this parable he was not holding up an ideal model for what it meant to be a good leader. He did not lay out a clear vision. Nor did he provide a list of actions that the leaders should implement.
He told a story that chipped away at the hardness of his listeners’ hearts. He used a metaphor that bored into their souls. These were not leaders who
• took care of others
• strengthened the weak
• healed the sick
• brought back the strays
• searched for the lost
Shepherding in such a way is a matter of heart. It goes far beyond getting the job done. While I was growing up on the farm I did not have the heart of a shepherd, but I saw someone who did: my father. Whereas I threw rocks at the sheep to scare them into the pen—which never worked—my father had only to open the gate and they came running. I would wait to tend to them until it was convenient for me; my father would consistently care and watch over them no matter what the cost to himself. I barely knew the differences among them, but my father remembered details about the last lamb of each ewe and when she was expected to give birth again.
That day Jesus confronted the practices of the supposed leaders of the people of God and offered an alternative. Today we must hear this challenge and embrace the alternative, making room for the Spirit to shape our souls to be shepherds in the way of Jesus.
M. Scott Boren, Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).