The sheep with a broken leg? The danger of embellishing Scripture

Herdsmen Sebastien Uthurriague (R) and his father Michel watch their Manex sheep in Iraty, Larrau, in the Pyrenees on July 24, 2019. - In the 'Ibarrondua kayolar' (shepherd house), at 1300 metres, at the foot of the Mount Orhy, eight herdsmen take turns from June to September to watch some 1,500 sheep and to prevent bear attacks. (Photo by IROZ GAIZKA / AFP)

I’ve only heard the claim once from a pulpit but perhaps that was already one time too many. I’ve since come across other people who have heard the claim.  A preacher talking about the Lost Sheep in Luke 15 claimed that after finding the sheep, the shepherd would then break one of its legs. The idea was that the sheep would be unable to walk for a while as the leg healed and so would have to be carried by the shepherd where it would learn to hear his voice and know his scent again. The Sheep would learn through this to stick close to the shepherd.

There are a few problems with such a claim.  First, there are the practicalities.  Would a shepherd really risk the sheep becoming infected, would he want his hands full carrying a sheep when he needed them free to protect the whole flock, how did he then carry his rod and staff?  Furthermore, if Jesus is the good shepherd, then it seems to ignore his claim that his sheep know his voice. The reason a sheep wandered was not because it didn’t know it’s masters voice, image or scent. 

There seems to be no factual evidence whatsoever that such a practice ever happened.  Whether or not it did, Scripture makes no mention of it.  The preacher I had listened to had spent more time applying a questionable embellishment to us than they had applying what Jesus actually said.

Now, as I heard it at the time, the preacher’s point was that Christians can experience pain and suffering as part of God’s loving discipline.  There are other Scripture passages which describe this kind of fatherly discipline. It’s important to mention that because there are some who are quick to regard any involvement of God in our experience of suffering as an abusive concept.  There are clear and practical examples of where we know that physical pain may be a by-product of true love and care.  A better illustration might be of the coach teaching the athlete endurance or the surgeon having to wound the patient in the days before anaesthetics in order to treat the disease.   So, I don’t think that the illustration is in and of itself automatically abusive.

However, the danger, as we have seen it, is that so often people move beyond attempting to understand and explain life, trusting such things into God’s hand.  Rather, the temptation is that we step into God’s shoes. If a pastor as an under-shepherd has heard and believed stories like the one about the shepherd who broke his lamb’s leg then they may be encouraged by this towards a kind of tough love approach to ministry.  That’s where the danger of abusive pastoral practices come into play.  The pastor convinces themselves and the congregation convince one another that horrific emotional and physical violence is part of God’s plan for them.

Further, the pastor who follows this method is confused.  The aim should be for the sheep to stay close to the shepherd, for believers to cling to Christ not for them to build up dependency on you and me. Jesus calls us to stick close to him as the Good Shepherd but he does so on the basis that we will know his voice and that he offers a light burden, rest, food and protection.  Jesus doesn’t need to manipulate us to stay close to him. 

%d bloggers like this: