By Sara Obeid*
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” – Alexander the Great
Recently, I came to discover just how difficult it is to convince a Lebanese person (Muslim, Christian, or otherwise) that being a true follower of Jesus does not mean being weak!
Last month, I was sharing my faith with a Lebanese friend of mine, speaking to him about Jesus the good shepherd – and, by implication, we as his sheep. As one already rebelling against any form of social conformity or followership, he felt it was insulting for me to invite him to become like a sheep. As he believes the Lebanese people are already being led like blinded sheep, he had no need for Jesus. In his words, the people follow our political leaders without question, leaders who have done nothing productive but produce sheep-like followers – in multi-color! With each color representing a different political party, the parties primarily recruit their followers on the basis of sectarian affiliation. As such, a person does not have any option but to join the flock in an effort to belong and have social influence.
Imagine, therefore, the horror to which my friend was being invited: to come and be a sheep, another member of the herd, to eat, get fat, and prepare oneself for the inevitable slaughter!
Issues of metaphor, pedagogy, and literary-social context aside, my friend’s rejection of this image is highly illustrative of the difficulties inherent in reaching Arabs, even Arab-Christians, with the message of Jesus.
How, then, could I convince my friend otherwise when faced with the realities of Jesus’s own words: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when hearing the word “sheep?” And, what would be your first reaction if someone called you a sheep?
According to the dictionary, a sheep (in addition to the cute fluffy animal known for providing us winter coats) is defined as:
- A person regarded as timid, weak, or submissive.
- One who is easily swayed or led.
For the past two weeks, I decided to conduct my own informal survey and went around asking a variety of people “what the first thing is that comes to mind when hearing the word sheep.” Out of 50 people, 5 were American, 2 were British, 1 Italian, and the rest were Arabs from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and others.
The replies of Westerners included: food, sacrifice, lamb, green pastures, shepherd, Jesus, dependent.
The replies of the Arabs, on the other hand, included: stupid, dumb, weak, Adha, Muslim Brotherhood. 
For those who know how it works with sheep, the propensity of one sheep is to follow the other sheep. When the shepherd wants the herd to go somewhere, all he has to do is to get the first sheep to move and then the whole herd follows. So in a herd-like culture, people with less influence follow the one with more influence, helping certain men achieve their agendas at the expense of others.
In truth, this was in fact my own view of Christians before becoming a follower of Christ myself.
There was a time when I did not believe in the existence of God and it was during this time that I began to call Christians sheep. They all seemed to have the same answers to my questions, an apparent oneness in thought and conviction. And, what I in-fact feared the most was the prospect of losing my own distinct intellect and unique set of perceptions about the world…of becoming a sheep!
My brother, on the other hand, has always been fascinated by Muslim leaders who refused to be “sheep for slaughter” and with speeches that have always been filled with a sense of power and victory. It has been difficult for me to speak about Jesus with him, as his role models are all strong men possessing worldly courage and military force, as opposed to Jesus who was taken to the cross like a “silent lamb.” Being invited to be “a sheep for slaughter” was not by any means appealing!
How can this ever be an alluring thought for an Arab? And in fact, many Christian Arabs are of the mind that unless Christians arm themselves with weapons and militias, they will become an easy target for persecution, much like in Egypt and Sudan this past year.
To take this stance, however, is to forfeit one’s right to call themselves a follower of Christ. For in arming oneself and one’s community in such a way is to in many respects reject the very message and mission of the man by which such communities define themselves – Jesus Christ.
Yet, it seems we now find ourselves back at the beginning. Is it possible for an Arab to take Jesus Christ seriously?
Sheep in the Bible
The word sheep occurs 500 times in the Bible. And, many of the prophets God chose were shepherds: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, King David, Amos. Even Islam’s prophet Muhammad, in a tradition reported in Sahih al-bukhari, said that all prophets were in-fact shepherds. So, his followers asked him: “Even you?” And his answer was: “Yes, even me.”
So: It is about the Shepherd, not the sheep!
Throughout his illustrations, Jesus consistently pointed to himself as the good shepherd. He is the shepherd who not only protects, but cares for his own, who seeks the one who gets lost even if he had another 99, the shepherd who stands for his herd against any assault, and the one who is ready to lay down his own life. He is a leader we can trust. He is, as scripture says, the Lion of Judah.
Jesus was trying to say: “I am not like any leader you have ever followed before. You are my very own and if the wolves attack you, I will not run away to save my life. I will not allow for even one of you to perish!” With such a lion as our shepherd, who then are we but sheep to be reckoned with?
People still do have the propensity to act like sheep. But Jesus gave his illustrations as a new, perfect example of what it means to be the good shepherd – a new understanding of leadership that had never been heard of before. Following this new king is not about being weak. But it’s about experiencing a new kind of strength, a strength previously unknown to the world and a strength greater than anything else the world can offer. When calls for strength consistently lead to violence, we are offered the strength to love. And because of this love, our shepherd, our lion bravely went out himself amongst the wolves, sacrificing himself, such that none of us would suffer the same fate.
*Sara Obeid is the Communication Officer at ABTS. She has a degree in Environmental Health from the American University of Beirut and has experience in advocacy campaigns related to peace-building and environmental activism.
 An Islamic Holiday celebrating the memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. And yes, Muslim Brothers have been called sheep, sometimes as an insult, but not always.