Sheep, to many Americans, are weak, subservient, and dim-witted creatures. We say “to follow like sheep” when describing unthinking, spineless loyalty. To look “sheepish,” is to look guilty. That’s why when Jesus refers to his followers as sheep, we’re not always sure how to respond.
Jesus and his contemporaries, however, held sheep in high esteem. Sheep were considered honorable and noble animals, because they suffer in silence and are obedient to their shepherds. Some were kept as household pets, and were fed by hand. Ownership of sheep was a sign of wealth. They were offered in sacrifice, not because they were worthless, but because they were so valuable. Jesus himself was called the “lamb of God.”
By calling us sheep, then, Jesus isn’t putting us down. Instead, he’s speaking of how precious we are to him; it’s a reflection of his love. In today’s gospel, he insists that we, his sheep, are the Father’s gift to him. We’re so valuable, that no one can snatch us out of his hand; we’re so treasured, that he gives us eternal life, to be with him forever.