It was quite a while ago now that a little article on an obscure web site caught my eye. It was one I had to file away. 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 little article.
The title 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. Or maybe sheep are critical to the economy of Qatar so this is big news. Who knows. But for some reason the publication decided to provide a small snippet 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 renowned but apparently 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 did (and I’m still sorry, Mr. Weirsma, honest). 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. Even lemmings are too intelligent to kill themselves en masse.
Sheep don’t commit suicide, or not knowingly at any rate. They don’t deal with despair by leaping to their deaths. 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 slightly comical (unless you’re the guy who decided to have a hearty breakfast while he should have been keeping his eye on that $74,000 flock of sheep). 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. It brings to mind Matthew 9:36 where we read that Jesus, going from town to town and village to village looked at the people and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A sheep without a shepherd is helpless and pathetic. It is pitiable. I know a pastor who moved to the countryside and bought himself a small flock of sheep. He later told me that he learned as much about being a pastor from owning sheep as he had from all the books he had ever read on pastoral theology.
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 allows 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 don’t think I even 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. But he also calls us his sheep, and I know that he means this as a tremendous encouragement, for he is the good shepherd, the one who never faints or grows weary or ignores his flock to fill his stomach (Isaiah 40:28). To us he says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14,15).