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Ox and Sheep

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

What is a yoke? It is a harness which is placed over a team of oxen, or even a single ox, for the purpose of pulling a plow or other weight. So, it would appear in this passage that the Lord is equating his followers to oxen. But wait a minute. I thought we were sheep?

I am the good shepherd, and I know my own and my own know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)

In the first passage, we are oxen. In this passage, we are sheep. Which is it? Well, both, depending upon the application. How can we understand this? Well, believe it or not, these metaphors actually connect to the Law of Moses. It is possible to make application to the teachings of the Master through the study of the Torah. In fact, it is necessary to do so.

In Exodus 22, we read of laws which deal with a person’s property, and restitution for theft and damages. These laws are also covered in the Talmud in tractate Bava Kamma, which deals primarily with tort law.

At the beginning of the chapter, we see an interesting law which seems to require further explanation than the written Torah gives;

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.” (Exodus 22:1)

In the Talmud, the sages discuss the question of why the theft of an ox requires higher restitution than the theft of sheep. The conclusion was based on primarily two factors. First, the ox is an animal which brings forth profit for its owner through labor, since it is a worker-animal. The sheep, on the other hand, doesn’t pull weight, but merely wanders around grazing. The benefit derived is primarily wool, which grows naturally as the sheep feeds in the shepherd’s field, whereas the ox brings profit through its works. Secondly, the sheep is carried away by the thief on his shoulders, and since carrying an animal on one’s shoulders was considered humiliating in Talmudic times, it reduced the penalty levied upon the thief, since he suffered humiliation, one of the five categories of determining damages. (As an aside, the Talmudic sages were always careful to measure justice according to mercy and fairness, not according to the strict letter of the law, contrary to how many view the sages and the Law itself). However, to steal a worker animal, the thief must lead the animal away from its pasture under its own power.

This is a very interesting aspect of sheep and ox which we may not have ever noticed without the sages of the Talmud pointing this out. Why would the sages even discuss this, you might ask? Because they did not view the Law as something which only serves the purpose of revealing how sinful we are, as is often taught within evangelical Christianity. They understood that the commandments of God revealed the very righteousness of God and were essential to harmony and peace in the community of God’s people.

The simple fact is, we are sheep at some times and at other times we are oxen. In our role as sheep, we feed in the pastures to which the Lord leads us. We graze on good grass, and we become healthy, with vibrant coats of wool. This coat can be compared to the fruits of the spirit manifested in righteousness.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

When we feed in the Lord’s pastures, our fruit is good. The time comes for the shepherd to shear us, so that the wool can be used for the benefit of others, but as long as we continue in the fields of our Lord’s leading, we will continue to bring forth these coats of righteousness. Sometimes, though, the enemy will seek to steal us away. The Lord speaks of this:

All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them.” (John 10:8)

So our lesson is to stay close to the voice of the shepherd, and we will be safe from the wooing and deceptiveness of those who wish to steal us away. But when it comes to the ox, it gets a little more complicated. When a sheep leaves the protection of the shepherd, he quickly becomes malnourished, sickly and even depressed. We could all find ourselves in that place, having been deceived, of being weak, lonely and feeling defeated. A sheep in this state could be lost altogether. But oxen, on the other hand, are strong and powerful. They can survive on their own, without a flock around them. They are not completely solitary animals, but neither do they cower in fear in the presence of a wolf. In fact, if the wolf is not careful, the ox could gore him to death or rise up and stomp the life out of him with one thrust of his hoof.

The ox is a worker. A minister. We are all oxen sometimes. We are walking in our gifting; our calling, if you will. We are strong, when we are the ox. The ox doesn’t get carried away, or stolen. The ox is led. How is he led? Well, to an ox, it makes no difference as to which field or plot of ground he is working in, just as long as work is being accomplished. An ox loves to do what he’s made to do, which is to work and pull weight. What if he’s led away by a thief who convinces him to leave the field of his owner’s choosing? What if the ox is just working along and stirring up the ground, ripping up plants along the way, just like he’s supposed to be doing, but in someone else’s field? The Torah speaks of this as well:

If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field…” (Exodus 22:5)

We must stay close to the Master, the Good Shepherd, and the owner of the field. When we are in the role of sheep, to forsake the voice of the Lord is to risk being stolen away or lost, and we could wither and even die. But even in those times when we are strong, and walking in our ministry gifts, we must be careful not to be led into another man’s field, where we can cause great damage, simply by doing what we are called to do. Our gifts are meant to be used in the fields of our Master’s choosing, and not simply where we feel led to trample off to.

Much confusion in the community results from ministry which is done with power and purpose in the wrong field. This makes a mess of someone’s field which they are going to have to clean up.

This Chanukah season, as you meditate over the light and celebrate its miracle, remember that we are all part of the flock, or herd, of the Master. May we be led to green pastures, and fields of blessing. There is much work to do for the kingdom. The labor is great and the workers have many different jobs to do. Let’s not trample the work of another in our zeal to accomplish our own.

I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.” (John 4:38)

So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:7)

God is working in your neighbor’s field just as He’s working in your own. If you’re not sure if you are being led correctly, take a look and see who is pulling your chain. You just might discover that it’s time to go back to where you just came from.  Back to the rich earth of the field that just a few hours or days or years ago seemed so boring and fruitless. It may just be the field in which you’ve been called to work.  

DAVID LEBLANC has many years of experience as a lay minister, from leading worship, to youth groups, to men’s Bible studies and home group ministry, to pulpit teaching. He has been a follower of Messiah for over 30 years. In the last several years, he has become immersed in the Messianic Jewish movement. He has a teaching ministry which can be found at His focus is in-depth exposition of the Bible, creating a bridge between the church and the Messianic Jewish/Gentile movement. He is in the process of planting the first Messianic fellowship in Vermont, while at the same time operating a small business and building a writing career. He has extensive experience with public speaking, and is a graduate of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting. David is married to his wife of 27 years, Michelle, and together they have 5 children and 5 grandchildren. They live in northwestern Vermont on the shores of Lake Champlain.