The image of the shepherd and his sheep is frequently used in Scripture as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. Not only that, God often chose shepherds to lead His people. Abram, Moses and Davie for example were all experienced shepherds. This image sent a powerful message to the people of Israel because even to this day, a flock of sheep in Israel is dependent on the shepherd for survival. Israel is not a land of knee high grass and abundant water. The shepherd must lead the sheep daily to graze on short tufts of grass an hillsides and to drink from widely scattered sources of water. Without the shepherd’s leading, the flock would die.
The shepherd/sheep image describes the intimacy, dependence, obedience and faithfulness that characterize the rabbi/disciple relationship as well. The rabbi walks ahead and leads his disciples by his voice. Just as sheep follow their shepherd without understanding why the shepherd leads where he leads, disciples follow the rabbi by faith, trusting him to lead them in the right way to the right place. Following the rabbi is just as much a matter of life and death for the disciple as it is for the sheep that follow the shepherd.
In contrast to sheep who follow their shepherd, goats often wander on their own, away from the shepherd’s chosen path, the “path of righteousness.” Goats require extra attention from the shepherd because they think they know a better path.
In light of this, consider what Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46, particularly verses 32-34, 41: “He will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on His right, “Come you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” Then He will say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire.” The key difference between the sheep and the goats is that the sheep obeyed the shepherd; they did what He would do. The goats on the other hand, had no interest in what concerned the shepherd.