Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday…reminding us of one of our favorite images for Jesus. When you are a priest and have to preach about sheep several times a year, you end up knowing a lot about their habits, their quirks and their unique personalities and ways. I must confess, I love “sheep lore” because I am so often surprised about what I learn about sheep. For example, did you know that sheep actually can distinguish the shepherd’s voice from the voice of others? Did you know, that when sheep are attacked, they queue up, back to back, literally, “having each other’s backs” – so that they can see 360 degrees around them and know where the next predator will try to invade. Not a bad way for a community to handle common danger or woe. But yesterday, I learned something new about sheep. In Psalm 23, the classic “sheep psalm”, there is the passage, “he anoints my head with oil.” That is, the shepherd, the very good shepherd, pours oil over the head of the sheep and massages it in. I have always been taught that this is a reference to the practice of anointing prophets and kings with oil….a kind of blessing that protects and empowers. But that anointing actually has a practical and helpful purpose. The oil prevents the sheep from getting tangled up in briers. But that oil also coats the head and face of the sheep, to protect it from terrible insects that lodge in its nose and eyes, or make their way through the ears into the sheep’s brain causing great distress. The sheep will often damage itself beyond repair, by banging its head against a wall or tree, seeking comfort when the insects infest too deeply.
I love the image…our shepherd will supply our need, including a hot oil massage that protects us from parasites and other dangers that would lead us to bang our heads against the wall. Our shepherd is faithful, down to the last drop of healing oil, setting a bounteous table for us, even when our enemies are so close we can see, feel and taste them. Our shepherd takes the time to pat us on the head, protect us and lead us, so that we might enjoy goodness and mercy all the days of our life…and dwell in the Lord’s house forever.