What is so darned interesting about sheep, and why are they lost?
My blog statistics show that one item I posted almost three years ago gets more hits than any other. Every week that post attracts the highest number of readers to my site—still. And I didn’t even write it. (My ego tries not to take that too personally.)
The post entitled “When we are the lost sheep” includes a sermon written Rev. Ellie Barrington about the Luke 15 parable of the lost sheep.
Often I wonder what kind of readers land on that post. What is so darned interesting about sheep?
Is it people who feel like “lost sheep” and need some solace? Is it clergy seeking sermon ideas? Maybe some kids in need of a sheep picture for a school project? I don’t know, but it’s crossed my mind more than once that if I wanted to increase readership of my blog, I would just have to put sheep in the title (see above), write the word sheep often in bold letters (sheep, sheep, sheep,) and include sheep pictures.
To my credit, the word sheep didn’t appear again in any of my posts until Tuesday when I wrote about desire paths.
Last week I visited the country home of a colleague. On my return trip along her remote gravel road, I drove beside sheep walking their desire path. First, I noticed the sheep. “Cool! Sheep!” I thought. (I don’t see sheep every day.) Second, I realized there was no fence on the field. “Geez, I’d better be careful a sheep doesn’t run out in front of me,” I thought. Third, I took a closer look at them. The line of sheep followed a leader sheep, that followed the path, that led them to a safe place. “They are not going anyway but along that path,” I realized.
I started to wonder, if sheep follow one another blindly and stick close together, how does one get lost, and why does there need to be a parable about it? Every time I thought of the lost sheep parable before, I imagined a sheep just wandering off—going walkabout, if you will. But sheep don’t wander off, so why are they lost?
I did some research. Sheep101.com informed me that, indeed, the instinct to play follow the leader is hardwired into the brain of sheep. They don’t think about it. They can’t help themselves from sticking closed to the sheep in front of them. The paths they walk are not straight. They walk winding trails so they can see behind them, first with one eye and then with the other, to watch for predators. Their survival instincts prompt them to hang together in a flock to avoid these predators. “A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the group,” the site says. And then there’s this: when threatened by a predator, sheep flee, and in doing so, sometimes a sheep gets lost.
The survival instincts of these social animals mirror those of humans. We stick together. We follow each other, even if it’s sometimes not the wisest thing to do. We walk a winding path and watch for predators. If threatened, our need to flee overrides all other survival instincts. In fleeing, sometimes we get lost.
Back to the parable.
Jesus is hanging with people of dubious character. The Pharisees (such sticklers about rules) do not approve. Through this parable Jesus gently tells them: “Look, we have some highly agitated people here. They had to flee because they were threatened. The rest of you have safety in numbers, so I’m not going to worry about you for a while. I’ll try to get these people back with us so we can celebrate walking the winding path together.”