Sheep Need Shepherds, Not Critics

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Want to say “does not respond well to authority” without saying it?  Just post a meme proclaiming yourself as a lion and decrying others as sheeple.  Of course, the popular origin of this lion meme was a Trump retweet of the quote, “It is better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”  The irony being that these ‘lions’ who have used the phrase since are still following someone’s lead.

The reality is, even in this current age of individualism, we are social creatures and are more often responding to the pressure of the crowd than thinking for ourselves.  The ideas that motivate us, the narratives and interpretive overlays that we embrace, these aren’t things that we created in our own minds.  But rather we have inherited many base assumptions from our homes or communities and will continue to be influenced our entire life.

And, speaking of influence, there was a review of Downfall, a movie about the last days of Adolf Hitler, that got me thinking about leadership.  For obvious reasons, this is viewed from a negative light in regard to the Nazi dictator.  The faith of the German people in their government is what enabled the atrocities of the regime.  Viewing a flawed human being (or any collection of human authorities) as God is something very dangerous.

I’ve written frequently warning against the mob spirit and peer pressure.  We should learn how to think for ourselves, make our own decisions, or we may be swept up in the latest propaganda campaign and used for immoral ends.

However, I also had to think that this unique ability of humans to organize around one charismatic personality is also the strength of our species and has given us a great competitive advantage over the strongest individuals.  Our hunter-gather ancestors were only able to take down larger animals for food or to protect the themselves from deadly predators by working together.  This took leadership, it required someone to be the point man of the group or coordinator of the collective effort.

So, sure, as the video says, “those full of doubts are desperate to follow those who are sure of themselves,” and “view them as shortcuts to prosperity,” yet this urge to fall in behind the Alpha is not always such a bad thing and is actually key to our success in building civilizations.  A great leader can empower and get more from the group than the sum of the individual parts.  I see this in John, the co-owner and true boss man at my company, without his infectious ambition and decisive confidence I can’t see us being near where we are.

The truth is that there are extraordinary men, there are those who do better embody the collective hopes of their people and thus are granted a right to rule.  One only needs to consider the story of David, a lowly shepherd boy, who faced down the giant Goliath and through his courage inspired the armies of Israel to defeat the Philistines.  Of course, this is not only a role for men either, the confidence of Deborah (Judges 4) or faithful example of Joan of Arc is what led to the decisive victories of their people over occupiers and oppressors.

People Need Leadership, Not Lords

We can talk about the ideal and imagine a world where everyone is completely able to take initiative, where order is always 100% voluntary and there is no need of authority or a leadership position.  That is the design of the Israelite tribes before they demanded a king to rule over them.  But even then, in that sort of anarchist system, there were judges that were appointed by Moses to arbitrate disputes and Moses, for his Divine call and standing up to Pharaoh, was the defacto leader of his people.

Every human is flawed.  Moses fled into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian and, despite hearing from God, needed Aaron to speak for him.  King David, the great warrior leader he was, had a loyal companion, Uriah sent to die in battle in order to cover for his adultery with Bathsheba.  The temptation of every person given power over other people is to use it to their own personal advantage rather than for the good of the group.  That is why the children of Israel were given this stern warning before appointing a ruler:

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

(1 Samuel 8:10‭-‬20 NIV)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

We don’t have kings today, but we do have an all-powerful political class, that is mostly exempted from the laws they apply to us, who never met a new tax they do not like, and always willing to send our children to die to defend their own bloated ego or for the financial gain of the ruling class.  Sure, call it ‘democracy’ as you vote for Tweedledee or Tweedledumb, but neither team red nor team blue actually represent you.  We’re ruled not even by these visibly elected, but by special interests and those behind the scenes who pull the purse strings.

And therein lies the difference between the good leaders and the bad.  The shepherd leader fills the role for the good of the flock, even willing to sacrifice themselves for the life of their sheep.  The corrupt leader uses their power and authority as a means to dominate those who are under them.  A good leader serves as an example, they encourage and try to get the best out of those looking to them for guidance.  The evil politician, on the other hand, delights in creating dependency and keeping others subject to their whims.

In the end, no man is actually worthy to lead of their own authority and it is only through understanding our own place before God, that we ourselves are not God, that we can ever fill the role.  Self-belief and narcissism, with a little psychopathy, is often what will get a person to the top spot.  But humility and faith, valuing all individuals enough to go find the one lost sheep, that is the mark of a Godly leader.  The only person fit to lead is one who is willing to submit to those who have authority over them.

The delusion of the Protestant independent spirit is that every man (or woman) and their Bible becomes their own king.  This “you’re not the boss of me” attitude, in response to flawed leadership or simply as rebellion, is precisely why the church is becoming increasingly impotent.  The Church, at least the one that Christ founded, had those given the authority to bind and loose, a council to decide important matters and those who acted as fathers.  This hierarchy was never comprised of those faultless.  No, what made them worthy, and the only thing that makes any of us worthy, is being clothed in the righteousness of the one Great Shepherd.

We need sheep who know they are sheep and shepherds, appointed to feed the flocks, like Peter:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

(John 21:15‭-‬17 NIV)

In my own spiritual journey, after my own Bible-based authority failed me, God provided me with a man who would end his emails with the phrase “your unworthy priest” and is truly that.  Fr Anthony is a very well-educated man, a college professor, and one who could easily flaunt his credentials as a means to humiliate some like me.  But what has given him true authority, in my eyes, is how he humbly serves as a true example of Christian leadership. 

He is a shepherd and the Church really needs more who are like him.

Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

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Jesus was not harsh out of hatred.

Behind his sharp rebuke in Matthew 23 was a deep love and longing for his people to hear his message, repent of their foolish pride, and live in faith.
The love of Jesus is evident in how he brings the sermon to a conclusion:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37‭-‬39)

Jesus uses the imagery of a hen to describe his own feelings toward those who rejected him.  It is significant that Jesus describes himself with feminine attributes—it is significant in that it shows a divine nature that transcends gender and also in the contrast it provides.  

Jesus finished a harsh message about coming destruction by describing his desire to nurture rather than judge.  His words express profound sadness and deep disappointment before ending with a promise: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until…”

Until what?

Before answering that, there are a couple​other points that can be extracted from the example of Jesus:

1) Criticism is more loving than indifference…

We live in a time when legitimate criticism is characterized as persecution or hateful.  Be too blunt or honest and pretty soon you’ll have the niceness police on your case.  Criticism feels unpleasant.  However, rebuke can be extremely beneficial to a person who is truly humble and open to correction.

The importance of receiving rebuke is mentioned in Proverbs:

My son, do not despise the Lord ’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Proverbs 3:11‭-‬12)

And expounded upon by the Apostle Paul:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! (Hebrews 12:7‭-‬9)

Paul says that if we are not disciplined by God then we are illegitimate and not true children of God.  Rebuke, according to Proverbs, shows love.  

Good parents discipline their children because they love and want the best for them.  They realize that uncorrected attitudes and behaviors will cause more future pain for their children than a rebuke.  Discipline, therefore, is a preventative medicine against a deeper more permanent harm.

It is easy to be nice to someone in order to avoid trouble.  In confrontation there is risk.  Many prophets lost their lives for speaking truth to power.  At very least criticism can come at the cost of loss of popularity and friendship.  As a result, people play nice for their own sake, to keep people off their case, and not out of love.

I personally do not waste my time trying to correct a person I do not love.  Why would I?

A good rebuke is not a hit-and-run attack.  No, rather it is part of a true concern for the well-being of another and a part of a longer term investment to help another person reach their better potential.  Sometimes, when an audience is especially stubborn and unreceptive, there is a need to ratchet up the rhetoric until there is a change.

2) The future is being created by us…

Many religious people are fatalistic.  Yes, they might claim to believe in “free will” or choice, but then revert to an “it is what it is” fatalism and using God’s sovereignty as an excuse.  

In Jesus we should be free—free to overcome our human limitations and able to create a better reality.  That’s what it means to created in the image of the Creator.  That’s what it means to partake of the divine nature.  And, therefore, with faith, there is agency and choice.

Those whom Jesus addressed also had a choice, and that choice is recorded in the last words of the Old Testament:

See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 4:5‭-‬6)

The “or else” in the passage above indicates two options.  Either their hearts will be turned or there will be total destruction.  History was dependent on their choice and the future depends on our choice—repent or die.

We know that many did not heed the warning and that Jerusalem was destroyed.  Many of those in the audience may have ended up in Gehenna (the literal “hell” Jesus spoke about) because they refused to hear and repent.  Many of us will follow them to our own destruction unless we choose the abundant life.

In the end, fatalism is simply another form of faithlessness.  Often when we say, “It is what it is,” the truth is that we are simply unwilling to put in the effort or step out in faith.  Life is what we make it.  The future we get is always a choice and we should choose Jesus.

3) When will we see Jesus again?

I don’t know.

That is your choice.

I believe Jesus will return in those who choose to turn, who acknowledge him as Lord, receive his Spirit and follow him. 

 Jesus gave this promise:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

Jesus longs to reveal himself to us today.

(Artwork: Stanley Spencer)