November 23, 2014
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
First Reading: Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17
I have attended a few sheep judgings. The judge is usually looking for perfection. The way the sheep stands, the feel of its wool, the height of it haunches, the order of its teeth—everything counts. Winning a blue ribbon is not just a nice thing to do on a Saturday, but marks a farm’s animals as better than average, bringing in more money to the family. In the first reading for this Sunday, the Lord himself acts as a sheep judge, and more than that, as a shepherd.
Ezekiel paints a picture of sheep and their shepherds in his chapter 34. The wide-ranging problem is that the leaders of Israel, the shepherds, have done a bad job. Rather than caring for the weak and watching over the sheep with justice and equity, they have been pillaging their charge. Stealing the wool, drinking the milk, and even killing some of the sheep for food has been the order of the day. The shepherds are acting more like thieves than shepherds and so they have incurred the wrath of divine judgment. Obviously, this is a metaphor. The leaders of Israel, mainly the kings, have done poorly, and therefore brought God’s judgment on his people. This extended metaphor immediately follows Ezekiel’s receiving news of Jerusalem’s downfall (33:21). The chapter serves to provide an initial interpretation of how it is that God could both choose a people for his own and allow them to be exiled and their kingdom destroyed.
The Exile as Judgment
Ezekiel interprets the period of exile, which happened in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., as the judgment of God coming upon the Jewish people. The events of Jerusalem’s capture and the beginning of the exile are narrated in 2 Kings 24-25. But in an earlier chapter, in 2 Kings 17:7-23, the author explains how the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled because of its idolatry. Ezekiel’s interpretation of the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah is different, focused more on justice and less on idolatry per se. The leaders of the kingdom failed not only in their direct relationship with God, but in the discharge of their responsibilities. They failed to do what God wanted them to do, to lead the people the way he had intended. They bring judgment upon themselves by failing to deliver just judgment for others. The exile to Babylon removes them from their places of power and delivers them into a powerless situation, cut off from their former positions of importance and left to struggle as refugees.
Shepherd and Sheep
Ezekiel pictures a shepherd standing in the midst of his scattered sheep. Sheep spread out to munch on grass and other plants when a shepherd leads them to a meadow. Only when it is time to go does he call them all together in a group. Ezekiel uses this idea of scattered sheep to image the exile: God’s people have been spread abroad and about. God, as the good shepherd, will come to “rescue” them from the places where they have been scattered. Normally, shepherds don’t need to rescue sheep, but Ezekiel is extending the metaphor to a new height, making the scattered destinations of the sheep into places of exile and banishment from which the Lord will deliver them.
Bad Shepherds vs. Good Shepherd
The bad shepherds are the exact opposite of the good shepherd. The Lord accuses them: “You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally” (Ezek 34:4 NAB). All the things that they did not do, he will do as their new shepherd: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal (but the sleek and the strong I will destroy), shepherding them rightly” (Ezek 34:16). After deposing the bad shepherds and personally taking the helm, the Lord will do all of the things that shepherds are supposed to do and care for his flock, with one exception.
Judging the Bad Shepherds
The former “shepherds” who have now been demoted to “sheep,” but are still big and fat, the Lord will judge harshly. The word he uses to indicate his action in v. 16, shamad, literally means “exterminate.” These former-shepherd-fat-sheep should not be looking forward to the new reign. “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats” (Ezek 34:17 RSV). Notice how God’s compassionate goodness is coupled with his justice. The two are inseparable. He will both bind up the lame sheep and exterminate the bad sheep. Those who dealt “harshly and brutally” with the sheep will themselves receive harsh and brutal treatment. It is a great reversal, a beautiful picture of how God’s merciful love works in conjunction with his powerful justice. Deliverance includes vindication. Rescue from oppressors includes punishment of the oppressors.
Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 25
These principles anticipate the Gospel reading from Matthew 25, wherein God judges between sheep and goats. Matthew 25 clearly draws on the metaphors and themes of Ezekiel 34. Notably in both cases, the harsh judgment of God falls on those who do not respond to the seemingly “horizontal” needs of their fellow men. In neither case is God directly condemning idolatry or impiety (though these are bad too!). Rather, he is convicting those who fail to serve those who fall under their responsibility, whether as subjects (in the case of Ezek 34) or as the poor and downtrodden (in the case of Matt 25). God wants us to act like him when it comes to our relations with other people. As people who possess any kind of power, even if our influence seems so insignificant, we ought to use that power in accord with God’s justice and mercy. That means seeking after the lost sheep, binding up the wounded sheep, strengthening the weak sheep, and treating everyone for whom we are responsible with fairness.
When it comes to the final sheep judging, we don’t want the judge to find mangy wool, uneven haunches, and broken teeth on us, nor do we want to be accounted among the bad shepherds who fail to fulfill their responsibilities. What we do in our relationships with other people indicates where our heart is in relation to God. Yet of course, as sheep, we need to rely on the good shepherd for a constant supply of grace, that we might be like him in all of the pastures where we have shepherding duty. Only then can we be found on the right side of the sheep judging.