“Shepherd” Félicien Rops (1833-1898). Graphite highlighted with red chalk. Public Domain.
Ezekiel 34:23-31* Contemporary English Version
23 After that, I will give you a shepherd from the family of my servant King David. All of you, both strong and weak, will have the same shepherd, and he will take good care of you. 24 He will be your leader, and I will be your God. I, the Lord, have spoken.
The Lord God said: 25 The people of Israel are my sheep, and I solemnly promise that they will live in peace. I will chase away every wild animal from the desert and the forest, so my sheep will not be afraid. 26 They will live around my holy mountain, and I will bless them by sending more than enough rain 27 to make their trees produce fruit and their crops to grow. I will set them free from slavery and let them live safely in their own land. Then they will know that I am the Lord. 28 Foreign nations will never again rob them, and wild animals will no longer kill and eat them. They will have nothing to fear. 29 I will make their fields produce large amounts of crops, so they will never again go hungry or be laughed at by foreigners. 30 Then everyone will know that I protect my people Israel. I, the Lord, make this promise. 31 They are my sheep; I am their God, and I take care of them.
The author of Ezekiel is looking to explain the reason for a great disaster. God’s holy city, Jerusalem, has fallen to the Babylonians, and its inhabitants have been carried off in chains. Blame gets passed around. Bloody judgments are issued. The book feels raw like it was written during a time of brooding, humiliation, and unconcentrated resentment. Needless to say, it isn’t the book we would read if we are here looking for a few words of hope during the pandemic.
Yet, chapter 34 of Ezekiel is one of the more polished pieces in an otherwise tricky book. The chapter begins with a denouncement of Israel’s previous leaders. The metaphor is shepherding, a trope the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) has been steeped in these last two weeks. Specifically, the leaders of God’s people are depicted as awful shepherds. Here’s a list of their offenses:
- they eat while failing to feed their sheep. - they fleece the sheep while the sheep go cold. - they slaughter the healthy sheep while failing to help the sick and injured. - They have not brought back the lost – even failing to look for them. - They’ve overworked the healthy animals to exhaustion and then abandoned the flock to wild animals.
We don’t have to be shepherds to know that this is no good. But the answer to this judgment is interesting, and the core of today’s reading. God claims ownership of the sheep and promises to place a good shepherd over the flock. The sheep of God’s flock will be genuinely cared for. They will have good food, water, and shelter and will be safe. God, it seems, will take an active role in the health and wellbeing of the flock, too, being present in their lives.
This is really the book at its most hopeful. Not only is justice met by removing the leaders that fleeced their people. Justice is also reached when the community is protected and loved. God’s vision of justice involves a constructive element, one that aims to build a better society.
It’s also interesting that this new arrangement is promised by God, not once but twice in our passage. And we can read this as people of faith have always read these promises. They are here for us, in part, and we work for the day when the promises of God are fully realized for all. The pandemic has allowed us to see the places where our human flock is in trouble. But it has also given us examples of heroism and service. Perhaps even today, we can name some of those ways God’s promises for healthy human life are being realized.