After many years of serving as a certified court interpreter, the matter before me in a criminal sentencing was nothing new. A jury had found the defendant guilty of domestic violence with aggravated assault, and he was now before the judge for sentencing. As I expected, the judged handed him a stiff sentence. Seven years in the State penitentiary, of which he would serve two-thirds time with good behavior. I remained at his side in case the defense attorney would need my services to further explain the sentencing. But the unexpected happened. As we waited, the man opened his heart to me.
“We are a family of seven, I am the youngest. All my brothers and sisters went to school, got an education, they all got their careers going. They are what you’d call “successful.” I am the black sheep of the family. I didn’t do anything with my life. I’m just an ordinary day laborer. I picked up bad habits, the worst of friends. Now I’m just about to lose the only good thing I had: my own family. I came home drunk, the wife nagged me about it. I shoved and slapped her around the house in front of my kids. Now they are all scared of me. I think they all hate me. I’m gonna do everything the judge said: Alcoholic Anonymous, Domestic Violence, Work Labor, everything, ‘cause I don’t want to lose my wife and kids.”
Tears ran down his cheeks as he whispered to me. But one phrase came back to me for its painful honesty: “I’m the black sheep of my family.” I told him that God does not have two types of sheep. God does not have a fold of black, and another white. God only has a fold made up entirely of black sheep because He knows the truth about us. On the inside, we’re all black sheep. But the Good Shepherd gave His life for the black sheep, the black sheep who’ve done nothing good with their lives, and in fact for all sheep, regardless what shade they appear to be. Even sheep who don’t seem to have any spots haven’t done anything good with their lives. Before God, they have only lived out a show, a performance, dressed up in white camouflage.
Seeing that he was listening intently, I continued. “The human race has only known one sheep all white and pure: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of man. He is that one and only white sheep, pure, without spot or wrinkle, perfect, free of any defect or inconsistency. He is totally devoid of sin and nothing but pure, unselfish love. He loved us so much that, on the cross, He became a black sheep before God so that with His spotless wool He could present us before God clean, pure, dressed up in His perfect righteousness.
That’s as far as I got. The bailiff came over and asked me if I was done. Because the public defender had not requested any further translating services, the bailiff took him away. The man hobbled along in shackles, and just before he went through the security doors, he looked back at me and pointed upwards. But the bailiff pushed him through.
Historically, there is something about black sheep that helps us better understand them as the perfect metaphor for a sinner in the gospel paradigm. Black wool cannot be dyed any other color. Thus, sheep farmers could not sell the wool and therefore, black sheep were considered worthless. Sinners also cannot be dyed any other color. Just like the leopard and its unchangeable spots (Jer.13:23), nothing we do can “dye-away” sinful human nature. On our own, we remain corrupt sinners until the day of our resurrection. Simul iustus et peccator, or simultaneously saint and sinner, is the nature of Christian sheep. We are all the black sheep of the family, and yet at the same time, we are dressed in Christ’s perfect garments tailored from His spotless wool. The only way to get rid of black wool is to be declared a righteous citizen of God’s Kingdom on account of Christ.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Is. 1:18).
Thinking of his own soul as that of a black sheep, the psalmist himself confessed, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Ps. 51; 23:1). Hundreds of years later, even the greatest of all prophets, John the Baptist, confessed the insufficiency of his soul when he pointed to Another and exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29).
I told him that God does not have two types of sheep. God does not have a fold of black, and another white. God only has a fold made up entirely of black sheep because He knows the truth about us.
Christ alone is the “Lamb who is led to the slaughter…” so that all the black sheep of the human family would have life – His life – and have it in abundance.
I never saw the man in court again. But God sees him in his prison cell: Dressed in spotless wool, in the robe of Christ’s perfect righteousness. And in God’s eternal kingdom, we’ll run into each other in total freedom. We’ll find the Lamb and we will both fall at the Lamb’s feet and worship.