There is an illustration that I’ve heard many times throughout the course of my life, and that is the illustration of the shepherd and the way he disciplines a wayward sheep. The story has several different variations and applications, but the long and short of is that if there is a sheep that is constantly running off and being chronically disobedient, that the shepherd will break the legs of the sheep so that it can no longer run off, and then the shepherd will nurse the sheep back to health so that the sheep will come to love and trust the shepherd.
There are multiple problems with this concept, chief among them the lack of any documentation or primary sources whatsoever that suggest such a thing even happened. As far as I can tell it is pure myth, much like the myth of the disruptive Corinthian women, and the myth of the eye of the needle gate. It is certainly not a biblical practice and has no scriptural attestation, and yet it is often repeated by pastors and teachers wanting to offer insight into the sheep/shepherd relationship. Good intentions side, it seems to me that unless this story and practice can be corroborated as legitimate, then you are lying to your congregation and to other people when you say it.
The earliest record of it I could find [and seemingly the origin] was in the 1955 book “What Jesus Said” , written by Robert Boyd Munger. The illustration was popularized in 1979 when Paul Lee Tan included it in his book for pastors Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. It appears in Munger’s book, verbatim:
“A Foreigner traveling in Syria who became acquainted with a shepherd. Each morning he noticed the shepherd taking food to a sheep that had a broken leg. As he looked at the animal, he asked the shepherd, “How did the sheep break its leg? Did it meet with an accident, fall into a hole, or did some animal break its leg?”
“No,” said the shepherd, “I broke this sheep’s leg myself.”
“You broke it yourself?” queried the surprised traveler.
“Yes, you see, this is a wayward sheep; it would not stay with the flock, but would lead the sheep astray. Then it would not let me near it so I had to break the sheep’s leg so that it would allow me, day by day to feed it. In doing this it will get to know me as its shepherd, trust me as its guide, and keep with the flock.”
That’s it. No primary or secondary sources. In fact it doesn’t even claim to be factual or historical, but rather is recounted as a quaint vignette. Perhaps the illustration appears earlier than that, but I’ve yet to be able to find it.
Other problems are those that involve biological practicality and theological accuracy.
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ Luke 15:4-6.
The scriptures doesn’t insert somewhere in there that after he finds his sheep, lays it on his shoulders, and rejoices “Then the almighty graspeth the forelegs of the naughty sheep and snappeth them.“ Instead we see love and tenderness and joy. Breaking a four footed creatures leg is a risky thing. The animal may well die from the trauma of the injury, and if not trauma then infection can set in and kill it that way. Or the sheep could very well be crippled for life, or have his legs heal in a deformed manner. One variation of the story is that the shepherd carries around the sheep on its back until it is ready to walk again. That works in a story where a shepherd leaves the rest to find one, and then carries it back home. But carrying a 50-75 pound weight on your shoulders is extremely impractical to do for weeks if not months at a time while you wait for the leg to mend. And what if there are two sheep that go astray? Or six? Will the shepherd break all their legs and carry them all? The story presupposes that there is only one sole solitary bad sheep in the flock, but with flocks capable of being up there in the hundreds or thousands, it doesn’t seem likely.
Exegetically, all of Luke 15 is linked. The characters change…a shepherd finds a lost sheep, a woman finds a lost coin and a father restores a lost son…but the theme doesn’t change and the main point is the same. The main point is the joy of Heaven over lost sinners being restored. Listen, the first two-thirds of John 10 is all about our relationship to Christ as his sheep. Verse 11 says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” Verse 14 says “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” We’re mixing metaphors here, but the story itself mixes them, so we need to be aware of them. The scripture reveals that Christ is known to the sheep, and that they know him. He doesn’t need to break their legs to get him to follow him; especially after he finds and saves them. If they are indeed his sheep when he finds them they will necessarily follow him. Not as misbehaving recalcitrant animals, but rather as willing, eager and imperfect heirs. The illustration of believers being sheep occurs hundreds of times in the New Testament, and depending on the application of this leg-breaking illustration, can mean to refer to different categories of who and what is a sheep, how the Lord treats them, and their relationship to him.
But one thing is certain, absent historical records, primary sources, or even the most basic support for the accuracy and legitimacy of this illustration, this story remains a myth. It you can’t back it up from your pulpit, then you shouldn’t say it.