Ezekiel, from which we read on Sunday November 26, (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24) wrote during the Babylonian captivity.
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem the people had begun to question the fundamental theological and political assertions about God’s eternal covenant with David, the land of Israel belonging to his chosen people and his protection of the temple.
In the face of this doubt, Ezekiel introduced a collection of surprising salvation oracles that announce the Lord’s restoration of Israel. The promises begin in this chapter.
We read this passage on the feast of the Reign of Christ. In this liturgical context, the passage prophesizes the coming of a new king, in the line of David.
There is a drumbeat quality with the repetition of the verb I will as God declares his intentions through the words of Ezekiel. It is a strong assertion of God’s intention to renew and restore Israel.
For thus says the Lord God:
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.
I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and
I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.
I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
In the unlikely case that someone misses God’s commitment to his people, he adds the emphasis I myself will be the shepherd.
Ezekiel uses the metaphor of the shepherd and his sheep in an extensive analogy. In the ancient Near East the use of the metaphor of shepherd was often used as a stand-in for ‘king’. The shepherd metaphor also reflects King David, who first appeared as a shepherd, as a wise, strong king who was dedicated to the welfare of his people.
The captive Israelites would have understood the phrase to search for my (scattered) sheep as a promise to bring them home to Israel. It was a prophesy that spoke to their hearts’ desires, but at the same time would have required a huge leap of faith. Perhaps knowing this, God keeps insisting, I will.
As he continues, the Lord focuses his loving attention on the lost, injured and the weak sheep of his flock. On the well-to-do he promises justice.
I will seek the lost, and
I will bring back the strayed, and
I will bind up the injured, and
I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
The passage skips some verses then continues with a judgment theme that will be echoed in the gospel (Matt 25:31-46).
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you (the fat sheep) 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 shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
The David reference refers back to the shepherd-king who ruled roughly 500 years earlier. At the same time it looks forward to a time when someone from his line will rule again. While the actual form of the restoration of the kingship was almost unimaginable to the Israelites in captivity, the promise was to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Matthew’s gospel (Matt 25:31-46) opens with Jesus’ words which echo Ezekiel’s shepherd theme: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”
As in the gospels of the preceding weeks, (the bridegroom returning after being delayed and the bridesmaids having to trim their lamps, or the master who returns after a long journey to see what his slaves have done with their talents) the Day of Judgment contains a surprise… final recognition of God in the persons of the poor, the sick, the homeless and those in prison.
- Does it sometimes seem that God has abandoned the earth? Wars, environmental degradation, hurricanes, earthquakes and inequalities seem to be tearing this world apart. While we go to church, we fail to see God’s hand in much of what goes on. This must have been the sense of desertion that the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day felt. In the face of this sense God said I will… and he did!
- Shepherds are not as familiar to us as they were to the people of Ezekiel’s or Jesus’ day. What other role model would you use to describe a caring relationship? (A coach on a sports team? A teacher? A crossing guard? A nurse? Someone else?) Take a few minutes to expand your sense of the role into one that is God-like.
- Matthew’s gospel includes a somewhat surprising ‘checklist’ of behaviors that form God’s criteria for judgment: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothing? And when were you sick or in prison and we visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ How do you do these things? Which of these do you excel at?