Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
It is well-known in Christian circles that before the shepherd placed the lamb on his shoulders, he broke its leg, so it could not run away again. By the time the leg has healed the lamb has learned to stay near the shepherd. This was common practice in Jesus’ day, and so is implied in this and other shepherding texts. Because the shepherd uses this cruel-to-be-kind tactic, we can expect that there will be times when Jesus, our Good Shepherd, will do the same to us. And we, as shepherds of our children, will need to use corporal punishment to teach them not to stray.
However, the whole ‘broken leg’ story is untrue. No one as found any historical evidence to support it. According to the sheep experts at Sheep 101,
There is no such story in the Bible. To do so would be cruel and impractical.
It is in essence a Christian urban legend. The earliest source appears to be a sermon of Brother William Marrion Branham, called ‘The Good Shepherd Of The Sheep’, delivered on Friday, 8th March 1957.
“I guess you’ve heard the story of the shepherd that broke his sheep’s leg one time. Many little stories has been told about it. And was asked this shepherd, “Did the sheep fall off of a mountain and do this?”
He said, “No.”
Said, “What happened?”
He said, “I broke its leg.”
Said, “Why did you break its leg? Are you a cruel shepherd?”
He said, “No, I love the sheep. But the sheep got to running away from me. And he kept straying out to itself. And I know the nature of sheep. And I know if they stray too far away, the wolf will get them. So I had to break the sheep’s leg to keep it with me, to draw it to my bosom, to give it a little special food. And I’ll be so kind to it, that when its leg gets well, it’ll never leave me any more.”
Brother Branham may have heard the story elsewhere or he may have made it up himself. Either way, there is no reason to believe the story is true.
Breaking a lamb’s leg is a dangerous and potentially fatal thing to do. If the sheep lives but ends up lame, it becomes a liability to the shepherd, slowing down the rest of the flock. He might as well just kill it and be done with it! The sheep are the shepherd’s livelihood, he will treat them with the same care you would expect a fine china dealer to show to his wares. Also, far from endearing the sheep to the shepherd, harming it may well have the opposite effect. Again, from Sheep 101:
It is known that animals can instantly recognize the voice of a familiar trusted person. Sheep have excellent memories for faces. They remember their handler. They also remember people who inflict abuse upon them. (emphasis added)
But, even if a shepherd did try this tactic once in desperation, or even if it were common amongst a group of shepherds, that would not mean that we should follow their example. That would be like saying: ‘God calls himself our Father. Many fathers abandon their children, so I can expect God to abandon me, and I should do the same to my own kids.’ Yes, God gives us these metaphors to help us understand him better, but we cannot take the metaphors beyond what the Bible actually says. Instead of painting God in human terms, we need to ‘be holy as he is holy.’
So what does the Bible actually say about sheep and shepherds?
Save your people and bless your inheritance; be their shepherd and carry them forever. Ps 28:9
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteouness for is name’s sake… I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Ps 23:1-4
He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in is arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Is 40:11
I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. Ez 34:16
Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasturelands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago. Mic 7:14
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. Jn 10:11,14-15
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Heb 13:20-21
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Rev 7:17
Perhaps the worst thing about the ‘broken leg’ story is the twisted image it gives us of God. The parable of the Lost Sheep, which a quoted in the beginning, is about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, told in response to the mutterings of the Pharisees. Somehow it becomes a story about punishment. How sad. As the above passages show, God’s shepherding is about a peaceful relationship of love and trust, based on his gentleness. Let us seek to shepherd our children gently and wisely, as our Father leads and guides us.