Baa Baa Black Sheep – (And Other Sheepish Tales)

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Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, marry, have I,
Three bags full;
One for my master,
One for my dame,
But none for the little boy
Who cries in the lane.

The Mother Goose rhyme above is not quite as I learned in childhood, but it is an authentic old version of the poem. As I learned the rhyme, the black sheep’s response was,
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full!
One for my master,
One for my dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

The reality is that life doesn’t work that way. There are really no free rides, and the black sheep’s wool must go to his master, and his master’s wife, and not to little boys in the lane.

From the earliest times, humans have been exploiting sheep to improve their own quality of life. Pastoral peoples domesticated sheep and used them for tallow, meat, milk and wool. We know that Biblically, Abel, son of Adam and Eve, was a keeper of flocks. The ancient Egyptians used sheep in farming to tamp in newly sown grain. By the time Abraham made his historical journeys the length of the Euphrates Valley and south into Egypt, sheep played such an important role in daily life that a person’s wealth was measured by the number of rams in their flock. In the centuries when Spain was the most powerful European kingdom, the time when Columbus sailed the seas and the conquistadors invaded the Americas, the power of Spain was built on the wealth of a successful sheep industry.

Biblically, many of the prominent men of God were shepherds or sheep-herders. Among them were Abel, Abraham, Job, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers, Moses, David, and Amos. The sheep and the shepherd are frequently used to illustrate the relationship between God and his people, as in Psalm 23 when David, an experienced shepherd, says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

In the words of this Psalm, David described total reliance on the LORD, as the provider of all things that give life value. He expressed complete trust in the one who was in every way superior to himself. David saw himself as a sheep, knowing that sheep are defenseless animals and have a tendency to scatter in panic at any sign of danger. The domesticated sheep needs its shepherd to survive.

There is another rhyme that says,
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.
Everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

There really was a Mary, and she did indeed have a little lamb. The Mary in the poem was Mary Sawyer, of Sterling, Massachusetts. Her lamb was one of a pair of twin lambs born on her father’s farm. The ewe had neglected one of her babies, and Mary found it nearly dead with cold. With the little girl’s care, and plenty of warmth, the lamb survived the night, and by morning was able to stand up. From then on the lamb thrived and became Mary’s special pet. The kind of care little Mary showed is much like that described by Jesus in Matthew 18:12-14, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (NIV)

Mary had one little lamb and lavished special attention on it. Jesus speaks of having many, and yet each one rates special attention from the shepherd, each one is the object of his devotion. The shepherd labors diligently to secure the safety of each of his sheep and rejoices greatly when he has done so, but the fate of the lost sheep is always in doubt. Note that Jesus said the shepherd looks for his sheep and then rejoices “if” he finds it. When a sheep has been separated from the flock, from the shepherd’s care, it is in great danger of destruction. Sheep are defenseless animals and their tendency to scatter in panic makes them easy prey to dogs, wolves, lions, or coyotes. Even if not killed by a predator, sheep may die of shock and exhaustion after being chased and worried by them. They very much need the presence of the flock and the security of the shepherd.

In the case of Mary’s lamb, the rhyme says it followed her, and that is truly the way of sheep. Sheep are always best led, not driven. On this account, sometimes goats have been run along with sheep just to provide leadership for the flock. The goats are less easily frightened and the sheep will rally around them. Jeremiah speaks of such a custom in Jeremiah 50:6-8, saying that God wanted to raise up leaders for his people from within the flock, because existing leadership had failed in Israel and Judah.

The shepherds of Israel had been failures, according to the prophets. They were men who abused their power and led the sheep of Israel into the grasp of their enemies. God told his people to find the strength of leadership within themselves and, though sheep, to be “like the goats that lead the flock.” He doesn’t say the sheep ought to be goats, or ought to follow goats, but that they should be alert and know where they’re going, and help one another. To some extent, the sheep need to lead themselves.

The ideal situation though is for sheep to have a shepherd – one greater than themselves who cares for them and leads them in and out. This is the very role Jesus claimed for himself in John 10:1-18, 27-30. He claims to be the leader, the protector, the feeder, the life-giver of the people of God. His devotion to the flock of his father, his devotion to the people of God, was such that he committed himself to die for them. Truly, he is the good shepherd, leading his people as David had pictured in Psalm 23. And although he has many sheep, Jesus calls each one by name, knows each one as an individual, and fully deserves the trust each one places in him. An old book on sheep ranching says, “A good shepherd must be highly self-sufficient and resourceful, have a knowledge of sheep and their characteristics, and possess an unerring sense of direction.” Examine each of those requisite qualities carefully, and you will find that Jesus legitimately claimed to be the good shepherd.

Of course there have been many shepherds who failed to live up to the requirements of the job. Another Mother Goose rhyme says,
Little boy blue, come, blow your horn!
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn!
Where’s the little boy that looks after the sheep?
Under the haystack, fast asleep.

Little boy blue was a failure as a shepherd, as many a leader among the people of God has also been a failure. The prophet Ezekiel spoke of this in detail in Ezekiel 34. But where human shepherds have failed, the divine shepherd never shall. He is able to deal both with the bad shepherds, who abuse their position or fail in their responsibilities, and with the “sheep” that don’t really belong in the flock. Some sheep don’t meet the shepherd’s standard, either being wolves in disguise or goats (Matthew 7:15-20, 25:31-41), and the shepherd separates them out at the right time. In appearance the sheep pass almost imperceptibly into the goats, and you and I might sometimes have a hard time telling them apart. Male goats have a beard on the chin, while male sheep do not, and goats have a characteristic strong odor that is lacking in sheep. The shepherd has no trouble telling one from the other. Indeed, you and I sometimes have trouble telling the sheep from the wolves, let alone distinguishing the goats (see also Acts 20:28-31). A great diligence on the part of God’s people is called for, lest they find themselves following a goat or consumed by a wolf that has come in among them. The good shepherd will care for his sheep, but his sheep must be with him, know him, and listen to his voice or that care is lost to hem.

The Mother Goose rhymes tell of one group of sheep that lost the care of their shepherd in the account of Little Bo Peep.
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep,
And can’t tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they’ll come home,
And bring their tails behind them.

The advice given to Little Bo Peep was absolutely appalling! When sheep are lost they cannot be left alone to find their way home. Not only experience and common sense speak to this problem, but the scriptures do also (for example, Luke 15:1-7, Matthew 9:36-38, 10:6, Mark 6:34). All around us advice is given, as it was to Bo Peep, “leave them alone and they’ll come home,” but time after time the scriptures enjoin us to deal with confusion and discouragement and injury with sound teaching and loving concern, to reach out to lost sheep and not just those who know they are lost, but also those who think they are not but really are.

The rest of the rhyme about Little Bo Peep, not often recited, goes like this,
Little Bo Peep fell fast asleep,
And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For still they all were fleeting.
Then up she took her little crook,
Determined for to find them;
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they’d left all their tails behind them!
It happened one day, as Bo Peep did stray
Unto a meadow hard by-
There she espied their tails side by side,
All hung on a tree to dry.
She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks she raced;
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
That each tail should be properly placed.

There are a lot of lessons in that little rhyme. Lessons about attitude and responsibility and consequences. The longer we delay in seeking lost sheep, even those who may feel content where they are, the more likely they are to suffer harm. Even though it is certainly true, “better late than never,” a life away from the shepherd is a life filled with dangers and losses, and some of those losses bear consequences that continue on even if a sheep has been returned to the shepherd. Lost tails are not easily replaced, even on sheep that have been found, and sin’s consequences can linger on, even when the guilt has been taken away. We cannot afford to “leave them alone,” for they’ll probably not come home and bring their tails behind them.

Going back to the black sheep that we started with, the rhyme said he had wool for his master, and his dame, but none for the little boy who cries in the lane. The products of the sheep belong to the owner, and the owner’s bride, and no one else. It is their’s, to use as they please. Peter said, “You were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Paul wrote, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…” (Ephesians 5:23). Jesus is our master, and the church is his bride. Whatever we produce belongs to him and his bride, to use as he sees fit. There’s many a boy crying in the lane, seeking our time and resources for their own goals and purposes, many of which evoke our sympathy, but none of which can replace or even supplement the Lord and his church, who deserve our all. He is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep!

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