In the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus is the King of the Universe. He is also managing sheep and goats. Thus, he serves as the Cosmic Shepherd. The image of “shepherd” is an Old Testament trope used to meditate on the nature of kingship, both divine and human. That is the case here in Ezekiel 34.
This text creates an important backstop for understanding the Parable of the Divine Judgment. The Divine Shepherd in Ezekiel 34 is the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. We need to keep that image in our minds as we read and reflect on the gospel text for this day. It is easy to lose track of the character of the king and the nature of the shepherd if we focus exclusively on the judgment aspect of the parable.
James Limburg titles the run-up to this section of Ezekiel, “The Failure of the Politicians.” That should get our attention immediately. “Put succinctly,” Limburg writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “Ezekiel the pastor to those in exile says to the political leaders of his time, ‘You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep.’ These leaders ought to be caring for the sheep, not exploiting them, and fattening their own lives. In these times that are a-changing, both world and church need politicians and pastors who will care for their people responsibly.”
If one of the roles of Christians in a polity is to maintain a critical distance and hold leaders accountable for doing justice (and it is), then this text is a real eye-popper. I know that most preachers won’t hold up any political leaders to this text and find them wanting. But that is exactly what this text encourages. You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep. The shepherds Ezekiel describes were likely collaborators with the Babylonian oppressors, lining their own pockets at the expense of the other exiles.
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29). I think the outgoing presidential administration fits this description somewhat securely.
Here’s the thing. Anyone who thinks that politics don’t belong in the pulpit simply has not read the whole Bible. The prophets are plumb full of political critique. The fact that we think we can keep that critique out of our preaching and out of our communities is simply a sign of our (mostly white, male, classist) political privilege. And, I would suggest, this reticence is a sign that we are much more in the tribe of the goats than that of the sheep in Matthew 25.
One of the privileges of retirement is the freedom to say things that would have gotten me in hot water with my “employers” in my previous life.
Carolyn Sharp speaks this element of the text clearly in her workingpreacher.org comments.
Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29).
Our own call to care for the vulnerable reflects the nature of the Good Shepherd, who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured and strengthens the weak (verse 16). These actions are more than individual altruism, however. They are the actions of the King – again whether divine or human. The punchline of Ezekiel’s text is the final verse in our reading: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Justice is always a political category.
Margaret Odell puts it this way in her workingpreacher.org comments. “Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd,” she continues, “viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.”
Leadership and the exercise of power – these are pretty contemporary issues, I’d say. For Ezekiel, the appropriate exercise of power is always power for the sake of the vulnerable and power with those who care for the vulnerable. It is not the power over others – the predominant secular model of power in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. Power comes from God for the sake of loving the neighbor. When power is used for any other purpose, we engage in idolatry because we worship power for its own sake.
Odell concludes with these thoughts.
The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking,” she notes, “how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.
I think we are witnessing some very disordered theology of power and freedom in our culture at this moment. The power that is often celebrated is the power over others that secures my certainty, security, and comfort. The freedom that is often celebrated is the freedom from the needs and demands of others – the freedom that puts me first and, in the center, and at the top. That is not Christian freedom (as, for example, Luther would have described it).
If we are made God’s royal and priestly people by virtue of our baptisms, then we have royal and priestly responsibilities. It would appear that those responsibilities include attending to the “least” of our sisters and brothers and to do so for their sake alone.
How does this impact our pandemic behavior as individuals and churches? Is my freedom to go maskless really of greater importance than the safety of those around me?
How does this inform our continued involvement in anti-racism efforts and causes? For example, are we working to remedy the horrific inequities in educational systems based on self-segregated housing schemes and the property tax injustices that result?
How does this inform our work in climate justice, which disproportionately affects the “least of these”?
Please see my post for November 16 for the resources for this Sunday’s texts.