The Shepherd Breaking His Sheep’s Legs- Myths That’ll Preach
I received some very positive feedback about a three-part series that I recently did on illustrations that pastors use that have no basis in reality. Because of this, I have decided to do three more. Ergo, this is the fourth entry into a six part seriesdeconstructing popular illustrations that pastors give their congregations, all of which might sound good or spiritual, but do not correspond to history or reality. The purpose is to build your discernment when people say bibley things, and not let evangelical historical sound bites lead you to repeat them. [parts 1,2,3 available here]
There is an illustration that I’ve heard many times sitting in the pew in Church and that is the illustration of the Shepherd and the way he disciplines a wayward sheep. The story has several different variations and applications, but the long and short of it is this:
The Shepherd must care for and protect the flock. We don’t see it much nowdays, but in ancient times, if there was a sheep that is constantly running off and being chronically disobedient, the Shepherd would break its legs so that it could no longer run off for its own good and protection. Once done, the Shepherd would nurse the sheep back to health so that it would come to love and trust the Shepherd. Another intended benefit is that any other sheep who see this happening will become less likely to wander off, lest it happens to them.
There are multiple problems with this concept, chief among them the lack of any documentation or primary sources whatsoever that suggest such a thing even happened. As far as I can tell it is pure myth. It is certainly not a biblical practice and has no scriptural attestation, and yet it is often repeated by pastors and teachers wanting to offer insight into the sheep/shepherd relationship.
The earliest record of it I could find [and seemingly the origin] was in the 1955 book “What Jesus Said” , written by Robert Boyd Munger. The illustration was popularized in 1979 when Paul Lee Tan included it in his book for pastors Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. It appears in Munger’s book, verbatim:
“A Foreigner traveling in Syria who became acquainted with a shepherd. Each morning he noticed the shepherd taking food to a sheep that had a broken leg. As he looked at the animal, he asked the shepherd, “How did the sheep break its leg? Did it meet with an accident, fall into a hole, or did some animal break its leg?”
“No,” said the shepherd, “I broke this sheep’s leg myself.”
“You broke it yourself?” queried the surprised traveler.
“Yes, you see, this is a wayward sheep; it would not stay with the flock, but would lead the sheep astray. Then it would not let me near it so I had to break the sheep’s leg so that it would allow me, day by day to feed it. In doing this it will get to know me as its shepherd, trust me as its guide, and keep with the flock.”
That’s it. No primary or secondary sources. No documentation in ancient sources. No mention in the Midrash, Church Fathers or pagan writers. In fact it doesn’t even claim to be factual or historical, but rather is recounted as a quaint vignette. Perhaps the illustration appears earlier than 60 years ago, but I’ve yet to be able to find it.
So that would be enough, but to drive the point even deeper, other problems with this are those that involve biological practicality and theological accuracy.
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ Luke 15:4-6.
The scriptures doesn’t insert somewhere in there that after he finds his sheep, lays it on his shoulders, and rejoices, that he then snaps the legs as the sheep squeals in terror because it had been mischievous or disobedient. Instead we see love and tenderness and joy.
Besides, breaking an animals leg-any animal, is risky thing. The animal could easily die from the trauma of the injury, and if not trauma then infection can set in and kill it that way. Or the sheep could very well be crippled for life, or have his legs heal in a deformed manner.
One variation of the story is that the shepherd carries around the sheep on its back until it is ready to walk again. That works in a story where a shepherd leaves the rest to find one, and then carries it back home. But carrying a 50-75 pound weight on your shoulders is extremely impractical to do for weeks if not months at a time while you wait for the leg to mend. And what if there are two sheep that go astray? Or six? Will the shepherd break all their legs and carry them all? The story presupposes that there is only one sole solitary bad sheep in the flock, but with flocks capable of being up there in the hundreds or thousands, it doesn’t seem likely.
Exegetically, all of Luke 15 is linked. The characters may change change…a shepherd finds a lost sheep, a woman finds a lost coin and a father restores a lost son…but the theme doesn’t change and the main point is the same. The main point is the joy of Heaven over lost sinners being restored.
The the first two-thirds of John 10 is all about our relationship to Christ as his sheep.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” V.14
“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” v.14
We’re mixing metaphors here, but the story itself mixes them, so we need to be aware of them. The scripture reveals that Christ is known to the sheep, and that they know him. He doesn’t need to break their legs to get him to follow him; especially after he finds and saves them. If they are indeed his sheep when he finds them they will necessarily follow him. Not as misbehaving recalcitrant animals, but rather as willing, eager and imperfect heirs.
The illustration of believers being sheep occurs hundreds of times in the New Testament. It refers to different categories of who and what is a sheep, how the Lord treats them, and their relationship to him. But one thing is certain, absent historical records, primary sources, or even the most basic support for the accuracy and legitimacy of this illustration, this story of leg snapping remains a myth.
[Contributed by Dustin Germain]