November 26, 2017
We know Jesus as “the good shepherd.” Most of us are familiar with the picture of smiling Jesus gently carrying a lamb, sometimes on his shoulders. Shepherd imagery usually evokes care, guidance, leadership, gathering together, and healing. The text is reminding us that Jesus’ kingship is gentle and selfless, like the oversight of a responsible shepherd. We are happy to imagine ourselves as the hapless little lamb, always rescued by the good and strong shepherd: Jesus.
I certainly like to focus on these qualities of Jesus. I habitually associate Jesus with compassion, gentleness, peace, welcome, inclusion, healing, and forgiveness. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love. He is about acceptance, generosity, and joy, building a community of shalom. We look to him and follow him as our good shepherd.
At the same time, in todays’ readings, we find this other side of shepherding. Taking care of the flocks also involves the less benign and more hard-hearted work of sorting, separating, culling, and dividing. Often the sheep are tagged or branded. They have to be regularly shorn of their wool. They may be sold off. The sheep have to be separated from the goats. And some animals have to be pulled out of the flock for slaughter.
The shepherd has to make a careful analysis of the sheep’s qualities and characteristics. A determination has to be made concerning the ultimate destiny for each animal. How many seasons do they get to enjoy hanging out on the sunny, verdant hillside munching on grass together? At what point do they end up as someone’s dinner?
Neither Ezekiel nor Jesus, of course, is concerned with giving advice about the shepherding profession. They are using shepherding as a metaphor to talk about people.
The prophet Ezekiel in particular is writing about the Israelites who have been scattered by conquering powers. When Ezekiel was working, the Israelites were either dispersed in disorganized enclaves around the whole Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, or they were crammed in a ghetto in the huge city of Babylon, under constant pressure to assimilate.
He hears God delivering words of comfort, predicting a miracle of restoration. “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….”
His word from God is that God is about to do this amazing rescue operation, gathering the scattered sheep of Israel back together in their own land. “I will… and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land.” He mentions “feeding,” “good pasture,” and the “mountains of Israel” repeatedly. “I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…. 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.”
It is a wonderful vision, offering comfort for people who have been through breath-taking, stomach-turning, mind-numbing horrors beyond our imagination. They are comfortable words for all who experience the business-end of an economy and political system that is engineered against them
But that’s not the end of what he says. God does not intend for all the sheep to show up on the green, green grass of home. This whole exile thing was itself a great sorting designed to work like chemotherapy to kill the cancer of injustice in Israel, the disease of oppression and inequality that got them into this predicament in the first place. They cannot go back to Israel, God’s land, still infected with the mentalities of domination and self-interest. They cannot return to the Promised Land carrying the corrupt and violent Babylonian ways of thinking and acting. God is using oppression to cure the people of their own tendencies to oppression, which got them into this mess in the first place.
God tells them that, while the injured and the lost and the weak will be tended to, they are not usually the sheep that end up on the owner’s table. That dubious privilege is reserved for the fat and the strong. So God is going to destroy the fat and the strong, that is to say, those deemed “successful” by the world’s standards. Those sheep will only be fed with God’s justice. They will get what is coming to them.
Because God knows that the fat and the strong got that way by fouling and hoarding the resources — the waterholes and the pasture — that should have been shared in common, and by taking what they want from weaker sheep by sheer, bullying force. They “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [their] horns until [they] scattered them far and wide.”
The godless, dominating, imperialist, conquering powers applied an “every nation for itself,” “survival of the fittest” approach to relationships. The strong and the privileged decided to do whatever they had to do to keep and increase their own wealth and power. They invented an economy in which selfish greed, lust, gluttony, resentment, envy are handsomely rewarded, and even threats and violence are excused when exercised by the strong and privileged who make and enforce the laws. Sound familiar?
I have no doubt that Jesus has this parable of Ezekiel in his mind when he delivers his own parable of the Last Judgment. It is the culmination of his entire ministry. It is the last thing he says before the story of the circumstances leading to his death gets rolling in chapter 26. His entire mission is summarized right here.
The Lord begins. “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.” Humankind gets separated into two classes, one bound for glory and the other… not.
Only, where Ezekiel focuses on exclusion based on the selfish and violent use of power, Jesus’ attention is on the victims, the people suffering in particular ways from these abuses of power. He is attending to the people left broken and dying in their wake. Where Ezekiel says you get culled for being bad; Jesus says you get culled for not being good. They are largely the same thing, but Jesus shifts the emphasis. He gets more specific in defining what goodness is. He says that goodness is ministering to people in need. Goodness is serving and assisting suffering people.
As a kid growing up and listening to my dad read this passage in church, I remember feeling impatient because it is so repetitive. You have to go through each of the 6 classes of suffering person 4 times! Hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison.
But that is part of the point. It is too easy for people to let themselves off the hook and decide that some are “truly needy” and some are not. We’ll gladly help the homeless or the hungry, but strangers? Foreigners? The undocumented? “Illegals”? Not so much. Sick people? Fine; but prisoners? Criminals? Maybe not. And then only some sick people are worthy; but those with diseases we have attached some kind of moral judgment to, like AIDS or STDs, we’re slower about. I think Jesus is encouraging us to pay attention to the less popular, even socially outcast and hated, people who are suffering.
But the most important thing here that we have to wrap our heads around is the way that Jesus identifies with these suffering people. And if Jesus is identifying with them, then God is. He says that the way we meet him is in the pain and deprivation of needy people. By extension, we meet him as well in our own broken, weak, and failing places.
So there are two things going on here. First and most obvious is the imperative for the nations to serve suffering people. That is the measurement of a nation’s value: the degree to which it lifts up and gives help to those who are downtrodden or victims. That is how we obtain God’s blessing. That is how we “inherit the kingdom prepared for [us] from the foundation of the world.” If we serve such people, and organize our society in this direction, then we are welcome in God’s household.
And there is another less recognized dimension to this. Jesus says that if we are these suffering people, if we identify with them, if we share in their losses, then we are united with him in God. That is how we become divine ourselves: by losing what we have. By embracing this kind of life, which he describes at the beginning of his ministry in terms of poverty of spirit, purity of heart, grieving, gentleness, mercy, needing justice, making peace, and enduring persecution, that we find ourselves blessed. In these ways we are identifying with God.
Salvation is about reversal. It is about identifying where our energy is weak and where is is strong, and then acting to bring that into balance by taking from one place and building up the other. This is a model that happens in the largest framework of the relationship between God and creation, where God’s goodness overflows in creative, self-emptying generosity. It happens in the structure of society, as we see in the Torah, which both Ezekiel and Jesus understand as constantly mitigating against corrosive and toxic inequalities of wealth and power. Violence and injustice separate us from God and leave us lost in eternal punishment. We are to distribute what we have so that we leave no one in need, in pain, or unfree.
And it happens even within individuals as we find our real purpose, strength, and life not in our accomplishments and successes. But the light shines through our broken places, our losses make room for blessings, and our true life emerges when we let go in generosity, goodness, gratitude, and grace.