Jesus nearly always calls his followers sheep. He also calls them cattle, serpents, and doves. On the face of it, this does not seem to be very flattering – just listing this makes Jesus’ followers sound a bit stupid – but let’s take a closer look.
The “double tradition” has Jesus send out his disciples as “sheep” (Matthew) or “lambs” “into the midst of wolves (Matthew 10:16; Luke 10:3). Matthew adds “so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Luke does not include the serpents / doves element. We have already seen the dual characterization of sheep versus wolves with the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” saying. In that case, “sheep” denoted insiders and “wolves” outsiders posing as insiders. Here there is no pretense to the wolves. They are pure outsiders. The imagery is that the disciples (sheep / lambs) must be aware and on-guard against hostile people (wolves). Matthew characterizes this awareness with the admonition to be like serpents and doves. While serpents – especially vipers – is an extremely negative trait elsewhere in Matthew, here it is uniquely used for an in-group quality of wisdom, perhaps recalling that the serpent in the garden was, in fact, “cunning.” Doves already have a positive valence in the gospels right at the outset when the (Holy) Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove (Mark 1:10-11; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21-22). This is a rare case when Jesus refers to animalistic qualities directly. Usually an animal is simply named and one has to guess at the implied connotation; here it is explicit.
Jesus refers to his disciples as sheep commonly in the gospels. While we may think of sheep as depicting “sheepishness” or blind following, mostly Jesus means this in a positive sense: they follow their shepherd (Jesus) well and will be rewarded. Mostly. There is one place where Jesus calls his disciples sheep in a negative sense:
And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’”Mark 14:27; Matt. 26:31
Here Jesus predicts his disciples’ desertion when he is arrested and crucified. When they become leaderless, they will scatter. They cannot lead themselves.
There is a similar sheep and shepherd passage in Matthew 9:36. In it, however, Jesus does not refer to the disciples as sheep, but the “crowds.”
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.Matthew 9:34-36
In this case, the shepherdless sheep are not the fully in group like the disciples, but not fully out-group either like the Pharisees. They are something in the middle. They are the “lost sheep of Israel,” as Jesus says to the Canaanite woman. He is seeking to “find” them to become their shepherd. Indeed, not long after this, Jesus commissions his disciples to avoid Gentiles and Samaritans, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).
This imagery is not limited to the synoptics. Jesus is, in the Gospel of John, famously the “good shepherd.” Jesus says:
Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and they sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.John 10:1-5
This language continues all the way through verse 18. Jesus is, in this instance, both the “gate” and the “good shepherd.” There is further sheep imagery in vv. 26-30, where Jesus reiterates that his “sheep” know his voice and he knows them. Later on in John, after Jesus has been resurrected, Jesus passes the baton to Peter, asking him three times that, if he loves him, to feed his lambs / sheep (John 21:15-17).
Finally, returning to Matthew, Jesus reiterates the “insider” status of sheep in a scene of judgement:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.Matthew 25:31-33
Knowing that the right hand is the good side and the left hand the bad side, one should know where this is going. The right-hand sheep are “blessed” and “righteous” and will inherit the kingdom, because they fed the Son of Man when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him as a stranger, gave him clothing when he as naked, and visited him in prison, because they did so to the least of these. The left-hand goats who are “accursed” and will inherit “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” because they failed to do all of these things. Clearly sheep represent the blessed and righteous and the goats represent the cursed. The sheep among the nations are the insiders who go to the kingdom; the goats the outsiders who go to eternal punishment (25:34-46).
Similarly, Jesus refer to his followers as cattle in one place: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). In this case, his followers are basically oxen – those who have a yoke for plowing – and Jesus’ yoke is easier, though it is still a yoke and his followers still cattle.
So far, predators and wild animals tend to be outgroup and prey and domesticated animals tend to be in-group. There are, of course, exceptions here, but this is the general tendency. While sheep and cattle seem to be a bit condescending, it is the sign of true followers who follow their leader and, when leaderless, do not quite know what to do. They, however, will be rewarded for their sheep-like characteristics.
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