The language of the heart is parable and symbolism. It is impossible to clinically describe the Spirit Realm from where our minds stand now.
There’s noting that requires us to use biblical symbols, but it is absolutely vital that we understand them. Without that, we cannot hope to build our own symbols for our own cultural matrix. Our symbols must speak the world in which we live.
But the net result of studying those of the Bible and understanding our own society inevitably sees us using some biblical symbols to correct the flaws of our own age. I don’t see how we can avoid the symbol of the shepherd, as it is the quintessence of how our Lord deals with us. We are His sheep, and He our shepherd, but we are in turn His shepherds to a fallen world.
Shepherds don’t “feed” sheep in the modern sense. In biblical culture, shepherds guided sheep to where food was easily available. And the guidance is almost entirely voluntary. If more than a few sheep become a little difficult, the flock can easily cease to be a flock. For sheep to do what they do best, they can’t get lost in pursuing their own curiosity too much. But there’s really nothing stopping them in the biblical image.
It’s really kind of sad that we can’t all go off and spend a day or so just watching a shepherd and his flock. Even if you add in all the modern Western techniques using dogs, it still preserves the voluntary nature of sheep staying with the flock. What can a dog actually do? If he starts physically assaulting the sheep, things come apart quickly. Sheep dogs are bred to attack threats to the sheep, not the flock itself. So just learning how it works would be very instructive for us all.
What matters most is the critical nature of the whole thing, the character of the bigger image. What distinguishes sheep and shepherding from other things we know about? Somehow, that is the essence of how our God deals with us. Not the agronomy of how sheep are owned and sold — that wouldn’t help us. It’s the essence of how sheep and the shepherd relate to each other in daily existence. It’s the business of how sheep bond with only one shepherd at a time and how the two develop a very real fondness for each other.
If this business of serving God and living His will is going to work, it has to work like shepherd and sheep. The two are very similar in how they are in reality. Not that God wants us to be sheepish, but that sheep are a reflection of possibilities in our natures. If we embrace His intentions, it will cause us to act somewhat like sheep. Sheep don’t struggle much with their divine design; we do. We can learn something from watching them do what they do naturally.
And so it goes with the image of sheep and shepherds as a parable for the moral truth, but there’s still plenty of room for us to come up with our own parables drawn from our culture. It requires understanding the nature of things so that our minds can recognize a truth in our context that harmonizes with the background music the heart plays in our awareness.