Recent studies focusing on the social behaviour of the sheep show that they are much more complex than has been thought.
Matthew quotes Jesus saying to the 12 apostles: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-6).
Jesus forbidding his disciples to preach the Good News among Gentiles and Samaritans seems, at first sight, to be contradictory and discriminatory.
Was his message not intended for the whole world? Had Jesus not come to redeem the whole of humankind? Why evangelise first only among the Jews?
Jesus’s strategy, to begin with the people of Israel, was in fact logical and implied no ethnic bias: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20).
By beginning with the Hebrews, he was drawing everyone’s attention to the ethnic prejudices that probably still persisted in the minds of the disciples.
Besides, Jesus was a Jew and, therefore, it was reasonable that his message would be addressed to his own people in the first place.
As the apostle Paul himself would later write some years later: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, because it is the power of God for salvation, to the Jew first and then also to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16)
On the other hand, if the disciples had preached first in Samaria and in the Gentile cities, this would have posed a problem when it came to preaching among the Jews later on, as the latter would have had good reasons for rejecting their message.
So Jesus knew very well what he was doing, because he knew the human heart. There was no favouritism in his approach, but rather a very intelligent and sensitive strategy in relation to his own people.
It was a temporary restriction, as subsequently the gospel would spread throughout the world. When Jesus refers to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”, the Master was comparing all the Jews with animals which needed a Shepherd, because the were going completely astray both morally and spiritually.
They needed to have the gospel of Jesus make an impact on their lives, and to understand that God makes no distinction between people of one kind or another.
Sheep are herbivorous mammals which have tended to be scorned throughout human history. To behave like a “sheep” is to lack character and to allow yourself to be easily carried along by the opinion of the majority.
However, recent studies focusing on the social behaviour of these animals have shown that they are much more complex than has been thought, and that comparing them to human beings is actually very appropriate.
They are calm and docile animals, despite the fact that they also have a sufficient degree of alertness to react to attacks from predators. This enables them to flee quickly and to move unpredictably.
Sheep are gregarious and can recognise each other individually, and they also recognise their shepherd. They can identify human faces and, of course, those of other sheep. When they feel lonely and isolated, they stop feeding and suffer stress, depression or panic. This can incur serious health problems
The bleats that they emit can mean different things, such as, for example, when a mother sheep is looking for her lamb or when members of the flock call out for a sheep that has gone astray.
Every single member has its own “tone of voice” which distinguishes it from the rest of the flock. Given an attack from a predator of any kind, the sheep will try to place themselves in the centre of the flock, as those that remain on the fringes are more vulnerable to such attacks.
These are the sheep that tend to stray from the flock and are therefore more liable to get lost. Sheep that have strayed are particularly defenceless if attacked by carnivores or in the event of an accident.
For this reason, the comparison with human behaviour is very pertinent. From a spiritual perspective, we are also like stray sheep who need to find our Shepherd.
We are innately inclined to take wrong paths, and to believe that we are self-sufficient or that we have no need of a shepherd to guide us.
However, when we stray from the Shepherd, problems will soon follow suit in our lives.
Shepherds in Jesus’s time were audacious and willing to face serious risks in order to protect their flocks. They often put their own lives in danger, and had to fight off bears, wolves, lions, hyenas and other carnivorous animals threatening to devour their sheep.
Well, just as a good shepherd was willing to give his life for his sheep, the Lord Jesus said that he was the Good Shepherd who would give his life for his sheep (John 10:11). That is to say, for everyone who personally receives Him as Lord and Saviour