When Jesus looked out over the crowd, the image that came to His mind was sheep, that most herd dependent of animals. He was not judging, He was describing. What He was describing is the deepest need, both natural and spiritual, of human beings: their fear of being alone. That fear is what brings them together into company. Those companies are tribes. Tribalism is the state of being, both social and spiritual, that alleviates the awful anxiety of being alone.
The tribal mentality – once it displaces the self-centered – requires leadership, not simply of the individual, now immersed in the tribe, but of the tribe itself. Thus tribes invariably become hierarchical, with individual responsibility ceded upwards. The sheep require a shepherd, as our Lord also noted.
Human social history is the history of the emergence, evolution, conflict and destruction of tribes.
When Jesus noted that people are like sheep seeking a shepherd, he was not recommending that they be provided with shepherds, although that’s how Christianity responded, and continues to respond. He was indicating the difficulty: that people are like sheep. That’s the difficulty He came to redress.
Why does it need to be redressed? Because the security provided by its worldly remedy – tribalism, however manifested – is a false security, a house built on sand. What people fear the most – being alone, albeit with God – is in fact the heart of spiritual reality, and fleeing from it is fleeing from true reality. Eternal life is life that is at peace with that reality, and able to grow within it.
I am the good shepherd, He said. All earlier – and most subsequent – shepherds came to take advantage of the sheep-like submergence into the tribe.
Jesus offers to turn sheep into children of God.