of shepherds and kings…
November 26, 2017
Scripture: Ezekiel 34
This passage is well-known in theological circles as the prophet very clearly and specifically calls out the authorities of the faith as well as offers the promise of a new day, a new reign of a just and righteous ‘Prince’ to come from the lineage of David. And in the middle of the passage we hear God saying, “I will make a new covenant’ which is in fact the origin of the notion of a ‘New Testament, or the new understanding of our faith…the reset in effect, over and against the existing political and religious hierarchy which came about with the advent of Jesus. And I say political hierarchy in addition to religious because the term ‘shepherd’ in biblical times was used to denote kings as well. Kings were seen as those who were called to watch over the people and to take care of them as a shepherd tends the flock.
And it is not a great stretch to understand this passage as it was often seen by the early Christian movement, namely as a pre-figuring of Jesus Christ, as the one of David’s line who was to come and usher in a new reign of justice and everlasting peace under his careful and wise leadership as the anointed one of God.
And likewise today, this passage has many parallels that can be drawn to current religious, social, and government conditions that need to be addressed just as the prophet so addressed the leaders of his day. And while it is a lengthy passage I think it might be helpful to hear at least portions of it as transported forward into today’s circumstances and with today’s parallel actors to see how applicable it may be to our own circumstances. So a rough translation brought forward into ‘today-speak’ might go something like this:
The word of the Lord sounded forth saying to the prophet, ‘Tell the truth and so expose the wrongdoings of those who have been entrusted with the care of my people…those who have turned from my ways and not fulfilled their calling. Tell each one of them, “You who have been given to care for others, why do you live solely unto yourselves? You have worked hard to profit yourselves but have fully neglected my people who as a consequence have grown weak and are not well. You have not reached out to them in their struggle and confusion but have instead ignored their cries completely, leaving them all alone to fend for themselves in a world increasingly perilous to those with no just or compassionate leader. And as a result my people have strayed far and wide, they have lost their bearings and wander like a ship without a rudder, like a horse and plow with no plowman. No longer do they know right from wrong or truth from falsehood…their cries echo loudly throughout heaven.
Therefore failed leaders, hear my words and take heed. Since you have not fulfilled your calling to lead and as you have instead cared only for yourself and your own, I have set my face against you. I will no longer allow you to have charge and responsibility over my people but instead will do so myself. I will take back the care of my own from you for you have failed in your duty. I myself will search for my lost ones, the ones you scattered in your carelessness, and I will find them, each and every one, I will bring them back from their places of fear and wandering and rescue them all.
I myself will care for them with goodness and love; I myself will heal them and restore them to the glory befitting all my children. However all those who have abused their call and failed in fulfilling their trust to lead and care for my people shall face my justice. No longer will they be allowed to hurt or injure my own but instead shall be finally and fully removed from their position of authority.
And in their place I shall raise up a new leader who shall lead with grace and with lovingkindness. One who shall seek peace…not war, joyous unity…not division and prejudice, loving community…not petty and exclusive fiefdoms.
This one whom I shall raise up from my own shall be a good shepherd after my own heart. A new order shall be established and my day of peace shall finally be revealed to all. And in that time all my children shall be showered with blessings and live in safety. The earth shall hold them once again in a harmonious embrace just as it was in the beginning. And all my people shall then prosper in the land and in all the places I have blessed for their communion. They shall know safety and peace not hunger or fear…and they shall know that I truly am the Lord of love. For they are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture…and I am their God.
In truth, leadership can take many forms…it can be holy and just, or unholy and unjust…it can be well-balanced and inclusive or exclusive and self-centered. It can be based upon true compassion and equal opportunity for all…or abuse and injustice which benefits only a very few. Holy or unholy, it can be life-giving or death-dealing…and surely we have seen examples of them all.
However, as our passage makes very clear, in truth leadership is a calling which is intended to be administered on behalf of those in the leader’s charge, rather than at their loss and expense. And unfortunately we have seen much that hints at the latter of late. But perhaps we ask too much of worldly leadership…perhaps we should not be asking those who lead in the world to lead as if their calling was a holy call. Perhaps if the ways of the world are so broken and unjust than is it asking too much to expect our leaders in the world to be any different?
Some may think so, but personally I think that we must ask and even demand more from those who are in positions of authority over others, both in the world and in the church. I believe that leadership in any capacity is a holy obligation and one in which each one who so serves will stand and give account at the last day as to how well they administered the oath of their office in a way that was both just and compassionate.
We simply cannot stand for or abide corruption or moral depravity in our leaders; we must insist that they do their work with the whole of humanity in mind and not just a fraction thereof. For God’s promised day of future peace will remain forever out of reach if we do not find the path of just and right living as the family of humanity altogether…forever an unfulfilled promise if we do not find and then heed leaders who are led by grace and not personal glory, led by a desire that all shall prosper rather than the few, and willing to lead with a stubborn insistence that justice for each one must be sought, found, and lifted up.
And that last part is sometimes the most difficult. For it is easy to simply address the symptoms of injustice and careless leadership or less-than-loving neighborliness…the harder thing however is to go beyond simply placing temporary fixes in place and to do the hard work of getting to the root of the problem and then having the commitment to see it through to the point of just and holy change.
As the church, we are good at searching for new and better ways to extend temporary fixes of care to our neighbors in need, however we are often not as willing or quick to seek to change the underlying circumstances that would result in a lessening of the conditions which caused the hardship or injustice in the first place. Activism of this sort is uncomfortable for many as it causes us to take stands for which others may look down on us or think less of us. It is always more comfortable to have a faith practice that is focused only on worship and the doing of good deeds.
However, when the living out of our faith asks that we cross that line and become critical of social or political ‘norms’ then we back off, complaining that ‘religion and politics should not be mixed’. However, our reading offers a full condemnation of leadership both politically as well as by the religious authorities, which in Ezekiel’s time were pretty much one and the same.
Not so today however when they are supposedly kept separate and apart. Aside from whether this is true or not in practice, the ‘baked-in’ policy of the separation of church and state in our own nation has its own consequences of concern for those who profess to be followers of Jesus. And that is partly because the separation of religion and politics in our society may have in some sense given the church an ‘out’ in that they can claim powerlessness to address some of the underlying issues of injustice as they are seen as the sole responsibility of the state. So in a sense the church is enabled to satisfy her own conscience by opting to focus only on ‘temporary or partial care’ for the poor and injured, without fulfilling the role set forth within our passage to seek to bring about justice as well. And if the church allows itself to continue to avoid the hard work of seeking and fighting for social justice by addressing the underlying issues of prejudice and inequity then the need for ‘care’ and support of the poor and injured will never go away or be reduced.
Ezekiel is very tough in his no-holds barred expression of disdain for the way in which the rulers of his day had chosen to profit only themselves at the expense of caring for those in their charge. His very graphic condemnation of the treatment of the poor and wandering lost sheep of Israel not only shows God’s contempt for injustice waged in his holy name, but reinforces as well the need for us to review our own position in this day and age regarding our own willingness to take a stand for those in the margins, for the lost and the poor, and for the injured and the needy. The church is called by the prophet to advocate not only through hands-on extension of help, care, and support but also by willingly and actively standing against anything that serves to perpetuate the original need or injustice.
And that is just the sort of activist faith-practice that will surely make clear why it was that Jesus told his disciples to ‘take up their cross and follow him’. Which is quite unlike the prevailing climate of Christian activism in our nation today, or at least what most people think is Christian activism. That which passes for ‘activism’ today is quite far from what the prophet is calling for in our passage. Unfortunately Christian activism of today is primarily embodied by those on the far right of the political spectrum who in large part have sided with the government in weakening social assistance policies and supporting leaders and laws aimed at enriching the wealthy and further marginalizing if not eliminating the poor and needy…or at least deporting as much of what they see as ‘the problem’ as possible.
In full contrast to Ezekiel’s warnings, the activist wing of Christianity today finds it is okay to support leaders who have demonstrated a complete lack of care or concern for the least among us. And they advocate as well for those who have been shown to be immoral if not completely amoral regarding issues of human sexuality and basic human decency. The far right ‘flock’ of 21st Century Christianity has been fully co-opted by the corresponding right wing of the government and now supports government policies that do not seek justice for the needy whatsoever but rather often have the consequence of making justice even harder to procure.
Not since Constantine’s co-option of the fledgling Christian movement to serve the government’s own ends and purposes in 313 AD has there been such a complete abandonment of the call of Christ by those who profess to follow him. Jesus taught that our primary calling is to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his justice’ for all those who have been unjustly afflicted and broken down by a social system fully rigged against them. Truly it seems that our passage is as appropriate for today as it was when it was first uttered by the prophet.
The ‘New Covenant’…the new ‘reset’ whereby God sent Jesus to reveal the nature of God’s love in truth, along with the promise of a blessed Kingdom to come on earth remains very much a possibility. However, a church that shirks her responsibility to get actively involved in the lives of and on behalf of those in need of real justice and compassion is a church similar to the one God criticized so harshly in our passage.
The promises of Jesus are still waiting for the courageous to stand up…
…for the loving to share unconditionally…
…and for the pursuit of justice until it rains down like water from a spring that never runs dry.
Let us here find the boldness and resolve to care so much that we seek not only to comfort but to find the sources of injustice and inequity and then work to bring about holy and life-giving change for all of God’s children.