Shepherds, Sheep and Salt

“But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Matt 9:36 (KJV)

“For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:25 (KJV)

As most of you know, “pastor” literally means shepherd. That’s why we call a quiet country environment a “pastoral setting.”

I’ve never been a pastor but I have learned a thing or two about being a shepherd. You see, just like the lead character in the movie “Out of Africa” (“I had a farm in Africa…”), I can say, “I was a shepherd in Scandinavia.” Well, I was for a little while anyway, in the summer of 1986. I spent the summer working on my cousins’ farm in Degeberga, Skane, in the southernmost portion of Sweden, on the Baltic Sea. It was my last summer as a civilian, that is, before I went to law school and had my brain forever transformed into a lawyer’s. One of my jobs was herding the sheep. That made me a shepherd.

One thing I learned about being a shepherd is that shepherds don’t lead the sheep. That’s right, even though we think of pastors as being our leaders, actually shepherd walk behind their flocks, not in front. This is for a couple of reasons; one is that when walking behind the flock the shepherd can see the flock. The second reason is even more powerful: sheep don’t follow leaders!

So how does the good shepherd lead his flock from behind? Several techniques are used. One is exhortation, of course, it’s not to complex–I usually just said “Yah! Yah!” Another and more precise method is using a stick to lightly pat the reluctant sheep on the butt to get them moving forward.

What does a shepherd have to watch for? Stragglers mostly, that is, the sick, the lame, the old, the tired and of course the disobedient. The shepherd walks behind so that he can see these weaker sheep when they fall, stumble or are caught in a briar. Of course the staff is more useful for the disobedient.

What’s another way you can get the sheep to go where you want them to go? Use salt.

What? What does salt have to do with it? Well you see, sheep really, really love salt. They’ll knock each other over getting to it. You’ve probably heard a lot of sermons and read a bunch of commentaries telling you something like, “in the ancient world, salt was used as a preservative”. Well, that may be true, but do you really suppose that many of the disciples following Jesus when he told them they were the salt of the earth really thought he meant to say, “you are the preservatives”? I know we’ve all heard this a hundred times, but didn’t sound a little odd to you? Didn’t it require the preacher or the commentator to go through some hoops explaining how Christians were the world’s preservatives?

Well, based on my personal experience with sheep, I propose another alternative interpretation. When Jesus told his disciples they were the salt of the earth, he meant it in a way that would be readily observable to them in a rural, pastoral setting. He meant that they would go out into the world and attract Christ’s sheep.