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It's Not A Compliment

It was a good couple of months ago that a little article on an obscure web site caught my eye. For some reason, that now escapes my mind, I found myself at the web site of The Peninsula, which describes itself as “Qatar’s Leading English Daily.” I hadn’t been there before and I haven’t been there since, except to read this particular article.

The title of the article is, “400 sheep fall off cliff in Turkey.” Perhaps it was just a slow day for news, or perhaps something about the story tickled the fancy of an editor. But for some reason the publication decided to provide a small article about something that had happened in Istanbul. Here is the complete text of the article:

ISTANBUL: Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 metres to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived, newspaper reports said yesterday. Shepherds from Ikizler village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free, the Radikal daily said. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000.

I laughed as I read the story. We have all heard of lemmings and their renowed but mythological plunges into the sea. As I child, and especially as a teenager, I was often exhorted not to be a lemming. “If your friends all jumped off of a cliff, would you?,” my parents or teachers would ask. At times I probably would have. But lemmings don’t really plunge into the sea in suicidal droves. That legend was created and supported by a Walt Disney movie filmed in 1958. Lemmings are too intelligent to kill themselves en masse.

Sheep don’t commit suicide, or not knowingly at any rate. The problem with sheep is that they are dumb. Really dumb. Far more dumb than lemmings. They are committed to a leader, and so committed that they will follow this leader even at the cost of their safety. When the leader wanders off a cliff, so do the rest of the sheep. This is both sad and comical. And in this little article we see this kind of leader. He led his entire flock over a cliff. When he fell to his death he was quickly followed by hundreds and then thousands of the flock. They were soon piled so deep that the ones at the bottom were crushed and the ones on top were able to survive, their fall cushioned by the mass of bodies below. After a while it must have been like jumping onto a giant pile of wool.

Can’t you picture the shepherds, their eyes bulging as sheep after sheep disappears in the distance, careening off the edge of the cliff? Can’t you see them running towards the flock, yelling, shouting, drying desperately to distract the sheep from following their leader? Can’t you picture their shame as they look at the mass of writhing, broken bodies, and then look back at their breakfast, now forgotten?

This isn’t really the fault of the sheep is it? It was the fault of the shepherds who had neglected their flock in order to indulge in a meal. They knew their sheep and they knew that sheep are not intelligent creatures. While these men filled their stomachs, they neglected their sheep and hundreds of them were killed, falling to their deaths in a mad, blind rush off the edge of a cliff.

This story could almost be a parable, couldn’t it? I can almost picture Jesus standing on the side of a hill in Galilee sharing this story with his disciples as they sat before him. “A man had a flock of sheep and entrusted them to shepherds. The shepherds, growing weary, allowed the sheep to wander as they ate their meal…”

I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t allow things like this to happen just to provide us with something to chew on, to mull over in our minds. I thought of concluding this article with some exhortations or applications, but I am not sure that I need to. I will say only this: Jesus calls us sheep. Reading a story like this, I am not so sure that he means this as a compliment.