BEHOLD A HERO of the west: the cowboy.
A thousand head of cattle pass behind him. A thousand miles of trail lie before him. A thousand women would love to hold him. But none do. None will. He lives to drive cattle, and he drives cattle to live. He is honest in poker and quick with a gun. Hard riding. Slow talking. His best friend is his horse, and his strength is his grit.
He needs no one. He is a cowboy. The American hero.
Behold a hero in the Bible: the shepherd.
On the surface he appears similar to the cowboy. He, too, is rugged. He sleeps where the jackals howl and works where the wolves prowl. Never off duty. Always alert. Like the cowboy, he makes his roof the stars and the pasture his home.
But that is where the similarities end.
The shepherd loves his sheep. It’s not that the cowboy doesn’t appreciate the cow; it’s just that he doesn’t know the animal. He doesn’t even want to. Have you ever seen a picture of a cowboy caressing a cow? Have you ever seen a shepherd caring for a sheep? Why the difference?
Simple. The cowboy leads the cow to slaughter. The shepherd leads the sheep to be shorn. The cowboy wants the meat of the cow. The shepherd wants the wool of the sheep. And so they treat the animals differently.
The cowboy drives the cattle. The shepherd leads the sheep.
A herd has a dozen cowboys. A flock has one shepherd.
The cowboy wrestles, brands, herds, and ropes. The shepherd leads, guides, feeds, and anoints.
The cowboy knows the name of the trail hands. The shepherd knows the name of the sheep.
The cowboy whoops and hollers at the cows. The shepherd calls each sheep by name.
Aren’t we glad Christ didn’t call himself the Good Cowboy? But some do perceive God that way. A hard-faced, square-jawed ranch- hand from heaven who drives his church against its will to places it doesn’t want to go.
But that’s a wrong image. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and lays down his life for them. The Shepherd who protects, provides, and possesses his sheep. The Bible is replete with this picture of God.
Eighty percent of Jesus’ listeners made their living off of the land. Many were shepherds. They lived on the mesa with the sheep. No flock ever grazed without a shepherd, and no shepherd was ever off duty. When sheep wandered, the shepherd found them. When they fell, he carried them. When they were hurt, he healed them.
Sheep aren’t smart. They tend to wander into running creeks for water, then their wool grows heavy and they drown. They need a shepherd to lead them to “calm water” (Ps. 23:2). They have no natural defense—no claws, no horns, no fangs. They are helpless. Sheep need a shepherd with a “rod and … walking stick” (Ps. 23:4) to protect them. They have no sense of direction. They need someone to lead them “on paths that are right” (Ps. 23:3).
So do we. We, too, tend to be swept away by waters we should have avoided. We have no defense against the evil lion who prowls about seeking who he might devour. We, too, get lost. “We all have wandered away like sheep; each of us has gone his own way” (Isa. 53:6).
We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us.
He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And Word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland.
From A Gentle Thunder