The Unjust: Fleece the Sheep? (Summer in the Republic 37)

The Unjust: Fleece the Sheep? (Summer in the Republic 37) July 13, 2018

My pastors have worked hard for little pay. You could (and can!) call them at any time and they will come and help if they can. My pastor came to the hospital when my son died and did the funeral for this baby born into Paradise. If someone gave him a jet, Father would have sold it to give to the poor of the parish or to pay down the mortgage.

My image of a pastor is a man like my dad sitting for hours in the living room listening, opening his home, and helping as God gave him the grace. He was a good shepherd to his flock. The image of a shepherd for the good helper or ruler has the sanction of the Bible and of Socrates. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep and I have seen this sacrificial love in action.


Every image has a limit. The good ruler is not (contra Homer) really the shepherd of his people and the excellent pastor is not literally herding us. First, we are not actually sheep. The people of the kingdom and the church are souls created in the Image of God just like the King and the pastor. Second, the actual shepherd has mixed motives for tending the sheep. He is, after all, profiting off of them in a way that they cannot profit off of him!

And here is a lesson about using images from Homer, Plato, the Bible or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Images convey a slice of a big truth, but they can be carried too far. The pastor who starts treating his flock as stupid, like actual sheep, failing to give them the “meat of the word” (actual sheep don’t eat meat) has blown it. The congregant, subject, or citizen who blindly follows the leader as if he is literally a sheppard has not read the rest of the book. The Shepherd of his People in Homer needed a comeuppance. The Bible shows Nathan the Prophet rebuking King David, Peter being rebuked.

Never use any image for more than the single message that it is conveying. 

Plato makes this point in Republic when poor Socrates overuses the shepherd image to defend justice. The ruler should be like a shepherd and care for the sheep! True enough, but Socrates fails to limit the analogy. He acts as if shepherds and rulers are the same sort of thing. 

His critic, the friend of tyrants Thrasymachus, is prepared with brilliant riposte:

Because you fancy that the shepherd or cowherd has the interests of his charges at heart, grooming and fattening them for their own sakes and not to serve the master’s profit or his own. You carry this illusion into politics with the consequence that you fail to see how rulers really behave. The actual ruler or governor thinks of his subjects as sheep, all right, but his chief occupation, day and night, is how he can best fleece them to his own benefit.

Thrasymachus is right. Socrates has used the analogy of shepherd-sheep in a lazy way. This is dangerous if, like Socrates and Christians, you think justice is good. The shepherd is not the total image of a ruler or leader. There are other important ideas, such as servanthood, that also must be included. Even more dangerous is the image in the hands of a potential tyrant (either in the pulpit or in the throne room). Sheep/shepherd overused will lead to passive and overly obedient citizens and give an excuse to abusive leadership.

Good leadership requires the consent of the governed, but sheep cannot say “yes” to God or anyone else! The image of shepherd and sheep was meant to convey self-sacrificial love to the shepherd, not mindless obedience to the sheep. 

Socrates, like some Christians, has failed to limit the image and so has left it open for a friend of tyrants to abuse it.

God help us.

Good rulers are like shepherds in one way: they will lay down their lives to protect the sheep. Good rulers are not like shepherds in another way: people are not mindless and must consent to be governed.

Christians are not called to mindless obedience to civil, religious, or social leaders. We are equals as humans to any other person. We are sheep (in one way) and not in most other ways!

I am happy that when I was a boy my mom and dad  served and protected me from all the danger they could. I am also glad they taught me to read, think for myself, and argue dialectically! I am happy to be God’s lamb, His son, and His servant. All those images, and so many more, capture a piece of the whole truth. God help me to limit each to the truth that is conveyed and not use the image as an idol.

God is not captured in any image (the Good Shepherd) and when we try to make that image fully true, we create an idol fit only for destruction.


*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23. Part 24. Part 25. Part 26. Part 27. Part 28. Part 29. Part 30. Part 31. Part 32. Part 33. Part 34. Part 35. Part 36. Part 37.



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