Despite having grown up in a heavily agricultural part of Pennsylvania, I know very little about sheep. I do know that they smell strange, but taste delicious. I also know that the finer grades of their wool make excellent suits, and my second-favorite piece of outerwear is a WWII-style mouton leather jacket, made from a sheepskin. Apart from some other factoids picked up along the way, that’s about the extent of my experience with these animals.
The Mass readings this past Sunday included some rather sobering words about sheep, and more particularly their shepherds, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives dire warnings of what will happen to those who lead their flocks astray. The metaphor of shepherd/sheep is one used throughout the Bible to describe not only the relationship between God and His people, but between those in positions of power, and those over whom they exercise that power. Which is why Jeremiah’s passage ought to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable with yourself.
In our contemporary context, most of us have little knowledge or experience of the sheep trade. I certainly know little about it, as explained above, and probably most of you don’t know much about it either. Yet when reading Jeremiah’s words we can substitute other terms to create recognizable, analogous relationships which resonate with us, today: candidate and constituency; broadcaster and listeners; author and readers; etc. Thus, “Woe to the politicians who mislead and scatter the voters, says the LORD,” would be a statement all of us who live in democracies could (hopefully) agree with.
I daresay many of us would find it easy to wave off Jeremiah’s warning as something inapposite to our own lives. We may very well comfort ourselves in thinking, “Well, I’m just one of the sheep, so no need to worry.” The problem is that all of us, to varying degrees, can find ourselves in positions of wielding the shepherd’s crook over others.
For example, if you’ve ever written a blog entry, a Facebook post, or a Tweet which has been liked or shared, then you are in a position of power. By publically reacting to what you wrote, others are acknowledging that you hold some level of influence. After all, there is no obligation on social media that you respond to everyone or indeed anyone who appears in your timeline. Thus by sharing your words with a wider audience, your words gain greater power over others, who may in turn wish to react to them.
Yet even those who don’t engage on social media may regularly find themselves shepherding others. Has a friend ever come to you for advice on what to purchase, or how to accomplish some task? Has a perfect stranger ever approached you on the street and asked for something – directions, a light, spare change? Then congratulations: Jeremiah’s warning applies to you, too. By submitting to your perceived power, whether over knowledge, resources, or the like, that seeker is allowing you to shepherd them.
So while Jeremiah’s words are indeed sobering for those in more obvious positions of leadership – senators, bishops, generals – they also ought to make us sober up as well. It is entirely possible that our actions, or inactions, may cause injury to someone else, if we do not take seriously those moments when we are called upon to exercise our power over others. Sometimes we are indeed the sheep, being led hither and yon by those with temporal or social power over us. But sometimes we ourselves are the shepherd, even if our flock consists of only a single sheep. Try not to lead the fellow astray.