Grace Presbyterian Church
November 26, 2017, Christ the King/Reign of Christ A
It may be some surprise, on a day designated as marking the Reign of Christ, to start off with a passage comparing a king to a shepherd. It turns out, though, that such a comparison was actually fairly common in the period in which the book of Ezekiel was written. When 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 in fact falls into line with a metaphor of king as shepherd that 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.”[i] 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.” (Does that language sound familiar?) 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)
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.
The thing is, I’m guessing the “fat sheep” talked a pretty good game about righteousness and “living right” and being children of Abraham and all that. We’re not talking about obvious wolves here; they are sheep, part of the flock. But their behavior towards the other sheep sets them apart as not being the “good guys” after all. How often it is that the ones who do the most harm are not those who threaten from outside, but those who destroy and hurt from within!
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.
Whether one sees this passage as prophetic of Jesus as the good shepherd king 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 not hard 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.
Jesus’s teaching directs us to care for “the least of these,” and in so doing puts an affirmative spin on what comes off as punitive in Ezekiel’s prophecy. What is striking in the parable is that this sorting is not applied only to the people of Israel, as in Ezekiel’s case or in much of Matthew’s gospel, but to “all the nations” – a term Matthew’s readers would instantly have recognized as including the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people of the world. The Reign of God is not restricted to the people of God, in other words. Nonetheless, much of Ezekiel’s warning is echoed in Jesus’s parable. Jesus may call “goats” those whom Ezekiel labels “fat sheep,” but the warning is still clear; you won’t like being sorted that way, and having justice shoved down your throat.
But let’s not forget the part that probably bothers a lot of us most; the degree to which even the sheep in Jesus’s parable don’t seem to realize who they are or whom they are serving. We tend to want our Christ the King scriptures to be all about the obvious “good guys” getting in and the obvious “bad guys” being cast out into that eternal fire. But how does that work when even the good guys don’t realize that they’re the good guys? What do we make of that?
For generations this day was known only as Christ the King Sunday; the term “Reign of Christ” is a recent one, but it has at least one definite advantage. To speak of the Reign of Christ places the obligation of responding to that reign directly on us. Are we doing the work of Christ’s reign? Are we giving food and drink, welcoming, clothing, caring, visiting? Are we doing the work instead of merely talking about it? Or have we devolved into Ezekiel’s fat sheep, crowding in and butting out and fouling the water and trampling the grass so that the other sheep can’t feed and drink, all the while hiding behind “thoughts and prayers” to cover for the work we won’t do?
Where are you going to be when the sorting happens?
For the Reign of Christ, and that it compels us not just to talk, but to do, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #41, O Worship the King, All Glorious Above!; #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #—, If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers (see insert); #273, He Is King of Kings
[i] Among may other epithets: http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/lords/marduk1.html