Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2014, Christ the King/Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-24, Matthew 25:31-46
The Shepherd King
You may have noticed by now that I’m not much of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher. I hope it is clear that I will, when needed, call out those things that are wrong in the world or especially the church (things I recognize usually because I see them in myself), but I’m not especially prone to going on and on about the wrath of God and eternal damnation and that kind of thing.
You probably know people who do get into that kind of preaching, though. I’m highly aware that there is a portion of the Christian church that seems to exult particularly strongly in such denunciations and prophecies of doom. For those people, the book of Ezekiel might be a favorite.
Ezekiel is not shy about bringing the hell-fire. Stretches of this book are so couched as to make his fellow prophets blush with horror. Ezekiel is also the prophet of record for some of the more unusual bits to be found in scripture – not quite on the level of the apocalyptic writings found in Daniel, but pretty strange in a couple of places. You might remember the “valley of the dry bones” to which God commanded Ezekiel to prophecy in chapter 37 of the book; the dry bones rise up and connect to each other, eventually coming to life as a valley full of people. The very first chapter of the book launches into a dramatic and fantastic vision of a great chariot and fiery wheels within wheels, one that makes Ezekiel a favorite among UFO conspiracy theorists today. So strident and sometimes overwhelming is the tenor of Ezekiel’s prophecy that some modern observers speculate that the prophet suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly related to the circumstances of the Babylonian Exile in which he lived and prophesied.[i]
Still, even the most fantastical of prophets needs to “bring it home” at some point, to deliver a message that something good is possible, that some kind of redemption is possible no matter how badly the people have fouled up their lives and failed to follow God. Chapter 34 contains one of those moments for Ezekiel, one in which the prophet stresses that no matter how bad things look now, Yahweh will intercede on behalf of the exiled and desperate people of Israel.
The first part of the chapter, before the portion included in our reading, takes aim at the kings of Israel, those who are judged as “bad kings” for their failure to lead as God intended. It might be a surprise to us to see kings portrayed as “shepherds,” but in fact the metaphor of king as shepherd was actually pretty common in ancient Middle Eastern thought. Egyptian writings often stressed the role of kings or even deities as shepherds of the people. The Babylonian god Marduk was interestingly described as the “shepherd of all the gods.”[ii] In more mundane terms, the famous Law Code of Hammurabi stresses the role of the king (namely, himself) as being “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak” –exactly the kind of language describing a shepherd’s responsibility towards the sheep under his care.
Given this context, Ezekiel’s discourse here comes as a relief and fits into a familiar political as well as theological framework. The kings of Israel are indicted for their failure to be true shepherds to the people, as in verse 3 and following: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the week, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have scattered them.” In turn God promises through Ezekiel to take such leaders away; beginning with our passage in verse 10, the “right” shepherd is revealed to be none other than God.
God promises to re-gather the sheep who have been scattered or driven away by the bad shepherds, to seek them out and to restore the flock. God promises to feed them and to restore their health. There are times the language here sounds an awful lot like the ever-familiar Psalm 23, with its promises of good pasture and good water.
Still, though, God has a bit more for Ezekiel to say about not just bad shepherds, but bad sheep. The gentle pastoral nature of the passage is badly disrupted at verse 16, in which God promises that “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” What seems like a jarring interruption turns out to be a major interjection, in verse 17 and following:
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (17-22)
Between sheep and sheep (lean or fat)
It isn’t just bad leaders God condemns through Ezekiel; the grabbers, the greedy, the hoarders among the sheep themselves also come under condemnation. Those who greedily consume the good grass and water, and even go so far as to foul the grass and water they aren’t consuming, are judged by God. There are probably three different sermons to be preached just on this passage alone. For today, let it be enough to note that the flock, the community of God’s people, are disrupted both by bad shepherds who scatter the flock and exploit their rule to enrich themselves, but also by members of the flock itself who crowd out fellow sheep from access to good grass and water, the good gifts of God given for all the people of God, not just a select, privileged few.
Ezekiel promises that God will intervene for the sheep, both casting aside the bad shepherds and promising, where the fat sheep are concerned, to “feed them with justice” (v. 16). It’s hard to resist the urge to read that phrase as suggest that God is going to shove justice down the throats of the fat, greedy sheep, but in any case their grasping, wasteful ways are under the judgment of God.
Ezekiel goes on to suggest that another shepherd, out of the house of “my servant David,” will be appointed to feed the flock and be their shepherd, and to “be prince among them” (v. 24). It’s quite likely that Ezekiel had in mind a new king of Israel, who might serve as a truly just shepherd of the people under the guidance and leadership of God. Still, it’s not hard to see why early Christians would read this passage as a presaging of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, reckoned as a descendent of the earthly line of David.
Whether one sees this passage as prophetic of Jesus or not, one thing that it does make clear is that we humans are in need of this divine intercession. As much as we might see ourselves us as among the innocent sheep scattered or starved by the bad shepherds or fat sheep, it’s never too far a trip from lean sheep to fat sheep. Humans, particularly humans placed in power or even merely more advantaged than another, fail. Don’t doubt that each one of us has at one time been the sheep treading down the grass or fouling the water with our feet.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr probably expressed this best in his Moral Man and Immoral Society:
…the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end. (xx)
We are, particularly in large numbers, prone to wrongdoing and exploitation. We need deliverance. And the Shepherd King is promised to deliver us from the exploitation of bad shepherds and fat sheep, and even – maybe most of all – from ourselves.
It’s hard not to make the leap from this Old Testament prophecy to today’s Gospel lesson, the familiar “parable of the sheep and goats,” particularly as the parable as Jesus tells it uses the same kind of metaphor as Ezekiel attributes to God, sorting “sheep from sheep … rams from goats.” Jesus’s point in the parable is also pretty similar; those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, cared for the sick, and visitied the imprisoned are the blessed ones, while those who did not do those things are not, because whether you did or did not do those for “the least of these,” you did or did not do them for Jesus himself.
The sheep from the goats
Jesus’s teaching directs us to care for “the least of these,” but I suspect Ezekiel would be in the background reminding us not to forget about why those people need feeding and clothing and visiting and so on. The good Shepherd King in Ezekiel’s narrative cares for the sheep by “feeding them with justice,” or maybe shoving justice down their throats in some cases. Those who are given to the exploitation of the sheep, whether as bad shepherds or self-fattening sheep, are held to account in Ezekiel’s vision; the Shepherd King restores the flock by strengthening the weak, but by destroying the fat and strong sheep who keep butting the weaker sheep out of the way.
That’s harsh language to us, but crazy old Ezekiel with his dancing dry bones and fiery wheels within wheels is not going to concern himself overmuch about our delicate sensibilities.
I know I’m relatively young compared to some of you, but I am hard-pressed to come up with many examples of the kind of kingship (or leadership, to ease into more modern models) described by Ezekiel here. It’s hard to imagine a true shepherd leader getting out of the primary stage in a contest for any political office, but even the church is at times lacking for the pastoral touch, the restorative and rehabilitating justice practiced by Ezekiel’s model king.
At the very least, it might suggest that our idea of Christ the King, that idea being celebrated on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, needs to be held in check constantly. Even the hymns we sing – yes, even a couple of the hymns in today’s service – put all sorts of other images of kingship in our heads. It’s easy to sing about a king’s power or might, or gloriousness, or any number of attributes that sound … well, kingly.
It isn’t that we have no concept of God as shepherd – between Psalm 23 and the “I am the good shepherd” teaching from John 10, it’s a very pervasive image in our teaching. We don’t often put the two together, though. A king who reigns restoratively – without regard to taking gain from the subjects of the realm, but strictly for the welfare of the people; restoring the scattered back into the community, healing those who have been wounded, giving comfort to those in need … how many kings (or queens, for that matter) can we recall who have ruled that way?
But that is the Reign of Christ. That is what it is to be ruled by a king who is also a shepherd. That is what it is to part of the flock shepherded by our Lord Jesus Christ. And our task is to take up the work of that Shepherd King, feeding, caring, restoring.
For the Shepherd King, Thanks be to God.
Hymns: "O Worship the King" (PH 476), "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (387), "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (441)