This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
Aliénor Manteau ’22 is a freshman in Grays studying English and Philosophy.
Whenever I have been taught about the parable of the lost sheep, the emphasis has always been placed on the solitary sheep, lost and then found by Christ, the good shepherd. But from time to time, I find myself wondering about the ninety-nine sheep left in the pasture. I wonder if it is inconsiderate of the shepherd to leave the rest of the sheep alone, and I worry that they will scatter down the sides of the mountain, insignificant white spots lost amidst green slopes. The shepherd may exclaim, “rejoice with me,” but I have my reservations.
These reservations may in part be due to the notion that being a part of a flock, or a herd, is shameful. The word “sheeple” has, rightly, a negative connotation. A portmanteau of “sheep” and “people,” “sheeple” was first used in the mid 20th-century as a derogatory term echoing what Nietzsche denounced in A Genealogy of Morals as “herd morality”: an inversion of natural power structures devaluing the powerful in favor of the meek. Nietzsche, however, clearly did not understand the meaning of the parable of the lost sheep. Though there are many ways in which herd morality is incredibly dangerous—in politics, for instance, or consumerism—being a part of a herd is only perilous if the herd is misled. With that in mind, the somewhat-Nietzschean quest we are each asked to lead originally and independently is not a lonely journey down a wayward path, but a journey of solidarity towards the right flock… it is a journey towards an imperfect community led by a perfect shepherd who not only waits for us, but actively and unconditionally searches for us.
If the call to the Christian life is in fact a call to be different kind of “sheeple,” then that choice must be a conscious one. After all, there is an important distinction to be made: human beings are not sheep, for we have been given the gift and responsibility of free will. We are invited to join a well-led herd that, unlike a herd of sheep, is conscious of its choice to remain a part of a well-intentioned—albeit flawed and broken—community. No matter how resilient and independent we believe we are, compared to Christ’s goodness we are far more flawed than sheep in comparison to us. Without a shepherd, and without its flock, a sheep is lost, defenceless—unaware, even—of the dangers surrounding it. Without our shepherd, then, where are we, who are so often led astray?
The invitation into Christ’s flock is thus not in any way a constraint but a gift; if Christ offers us “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), no originality or independence, no part of our animal nature, can ultimately bridge the gap between us and God. Only Christ, the “god-self” (Gibran 45) who dwells within us, can lead us to true freedom. Despite being occasionally lost, we are always eventually found, for Christ, of course, always notices the lost sheep. Within Christ’s flock, we lose no part of our individuality.
Therefore, by finding the flock and following the shepherd, we allow this “god-self,” the God-seeking part of our inner selves which is very much a part of our humanity, to orient our conscience. We allow our intuition to become so full of God’s love that following Him is no longer difficult, and we no longer wish to leave the protection of the shepherd. By reconciling our human nature with the “Christ that lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20), we make it easier to trust our instinctive discernment of right from wrong. And we make it easier for the shepherd, too, to find the lost sheep, for he relies on the herd to remain in the pastures while he is away. Every member of the community is responsible for ensuring that the collective flock continues to follow and trust in Christ. So, when the shepherd returns, saying, “rejoice with me,” we cannot help but rejoice, for we have collectively helped one more wayward sheep to rejoin the flock, and that is infinitely worthwhile.
Now, I am no longer afraid that the sheep will scatter down the sides of the mountain, or that the shepherd will not return. For “the Lord’s unfailing love,” according to Psalm 32, “surrounds the one who trusts in him” (Psalm 32:10). Again, God encourages us to not only trust in His son, the shepherd, but to choose freely to do so: “Do not be like the horse or the mule,/ which have no understanding/ but must be controlled by bit and bridle/ or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32:9). Instead, He says,“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;/ I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8). Yes, we should be meek and docile, but not thoughtless. Yes, we should follow, but we should actively look for the shepherd when we realize we are lost, and watch that the flock remains in the pasture when the shepherd is away.
It is so important to find a well-intentioned community and to follow the example of good, loving people, even in moments of doubt. If the community of wholehearted believers is the flock, and Jesus is the shepherd, then as long as we carefully follow we will always be walking on the right path, and our burden will be light (Matthew 11:30). In that sense, we are called to be conscious sheeple.