hen Jesus taught on this earth, sheep with their shepherd were an everyday sight that would easily stick in the minds of those who listened. And while there is much about the characteristics of sheep and the dynamic of their relationship with their shepherd that serves to illustrate our discipleship life with our Shepherd better than any other analogy, we don’t see sheep every day. Sheep aren’t in the news. And most of us never connect with any animals other than our domestic pets.
Take cats, for instance. We are often like cats—proud, self-contained, warming up to the master only when they want something. They spend a lot of time just sleeping in the sun. That analogy doesn’t go much further.
The life of dogs is closer to a discipleship analogy. They live to love their master. They watch for the master, spend hours staring adoringly, and learn to fetch at the master’s command. They even bring some intelligence to this adoration, unlike the sheep that Jesus compared us to. The only positive trait that sheep seemed to have in Jesus’ teaching was the fact that they knew their shepherd’s voice.
But without negating the many lessons Jesus still has for us in the contemplation of sheep, let’s compare discipleship to the experience of a little lost puppy.
Imagine this puppy is caught in a bear trap in the woods. Imagine a stranger finds the trap, extricates the puppy, dresses its wounds, carries it awhile, and then sets it gently on the path, and calls invitingly, “Follow me, puppy.” Whether or not the puppy follows, the stranger is its savior.
Let’s say this is a smart puppy, and when the stranger sets it down on the path to walk, it starts following instead of fending for itself in the scary woods filled with bear traps. When the puppy decides to follow the stranger who saved it from the bear trap, it is on the road to accepting that person not only as its savior, but as its master—at least temporarily. (“Whoever serves me must follow me” [John 12:26]).
But soon the puppy’s old curiosity returns, and the memory of its recent lost-and-trapped condition dims. Like a normal puppy, it is enticed by the sights, sounds, and smells of the woods (“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” [Isa. 53:6]). From time to time the new master slows a bit or pauses in his steady journey toward his home to repeat, “Follow me, puppy.”
The easily distracted puppy is becoming attached to this savior and master, but (1) the relationship is not yet very deep, (2) “follow me” is new to the puppy’s recognized vocabulary, and (3) obedience is a concept that will take some time and training for it to fully internalize. But as the puppy continues to come back at the master’s call, the makings of a following, obedient relationship begin to strengthen.
As the relationship strengthens, the maturing puppy goes less and less on its own explorations, letting go of its shortsighted agendas for the journey. It focuses more and more on walking with its chosen master, even though it may not understand exactly where they are going, or the purpose for the trip. It just follows the master’s every move, focused in the same direction, seldom distracted by the sound of rabbits in the woods. Over time the relationship becomes that of a well-known and well-loved master walking with a mature and devoted friend.
In some elemental ways this analogy mirrors the experience of Christians with their Savior and Lord on the walk of discipleship. But we are not puppies, you say (see Psalm 8:5), and life isn’t that simple, is it? And you’re right. Unlike a puppy or a lamb, we were created by God to reason (Isa. 1:18).
But what more reasonable decision can we make than to be more intentional about focusing on the Master and following Him home?
Kathy Beagles is editor of junior, earliteen, and youth Bible study guides for the General Conference Sabbath School Department.