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Last Sunday after Pentecost: “Kings or Shepherds?”

 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 100

Matthew 25:31-46

 

I’ll start with a question: How many of you remember the old show “Candid Camera”? It was a practical-joke reality TV series that used concealed cameras to film ordinary people reacting to ridiculous situations set up by the producers. Its longest run was during my childhood in the 60s, and this Sunday’s readings for the Feast of Christ the King brought back an episode that stayed with me to this day.

The set-up was this: High school students who had taken a vocational aptitude test were brought into an office, one by one, to get their results from a supposed guidance counselor. You could feel the slight nervousness in the room every time the results envelope was opened. In a serious tone, the fake counselor told each student that their tests had indicated that the profession they were most suited for was . . . shepherd.

You can imagine their reactions: shock, disbelief, and a touch of humiliation (always an undercurrent in the show’s humor). Clearly, these young people, offered a crystal ball into their futures, were hoping for a high-power, high-status life—and had absolutely no idea what the role of a shepherd was. Just that it was lowly.

As we laugh at this contrived situation, we may actually find ourselves in a similar one as we open our bulletins this morning. On this feast day, we might anticipate enjoying readings about the glory of Christ as a king. The trappings of His power; the status of being His followers. And instead, our texts are all about shepherds and sheep. What’s going on here? What are we being called to do or be according to this ancient imagery? Live lives equivalent to a lowly shepherd? Or, perhaps more disheartening, as powerless sheep?

Let’s be honest. We’re a lot like those high school students—and, in fact, I probably remembered their reactions so clearly because I identified with them so strongly. We all want power. We all long for status. We all want to be favored by the ruling society, to receive its rewards and protection.

And I imagine everyone here has a very clear idea of what the ruling system of power and reward looks like in 21st-century America—the people our society crowns as kings, what their characteristics and values are. But what does the system of power look like in the Kingdom of God? As followers of Christ in the modern world, whom do we recognize as our leaders, and how do we take on their characteristics and values? Do we aim to be like kings or like shepherds?

In the ancient world, you might be surprised to learn, this would have been a trick question, because leaders and rulers across the Middle East proudly claimed to be like . . . shepherds. This was true not only in the nation of Israel, where the Patriarchs were all in fact once herders of sheep, including Moses and, of course, David. “King Hammurabi of Babylon called himself a shepherd, and Homer regularly styles the Greek chiefs as shepherds of their people. In fact, history has shown, ‘from ancient antiquity, rulers were described as demonstrating their legitimacy to rule by their ability to ‘pasture’ their people.’”[1] This was the source of their power: having the characteristics of a good shepherd.

This identity was proudly claimed despite the fact that the occupation of shepherd, although very common in the Middle East, was not at all prestigious—and usually left to teenagers, the poor, or the elderly who couldn’t handle harder work.[2] Shepherds were most often the younger sons of farming peasants who did not inherit any land.[3] Yet the symbol of their work—the long pole, or rod—became a common accessory for kings in the Ancient Near East, what we call the royal staff, or scepter. Even in Egypt, the shepherd’s crook became a divine symbol of kingship—representing protection, power, and authority.[4]

So when the prophet Ezekiel, exiled with 3,000 Jews in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, has a vision of God’s restored Kingdom, his mighty God speaks in the voice of the lowly shepherd. He tells us clearly the characteristics of power we should aim for in this life. Power based not on force or domination; cruelty or entitlement. But on love, compassion, and justice.

“Thus says the Lord God: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. 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.” In this system of power and reward, “the fat and the strong” are society’s leaders who fail God’s people. Who do not give them protection, guidance, and safety. Who do not give them nourishment and direction in the way of a good shepherd. Who maintain their social status but ignore their social responsibility.

Their power will be taken away in the Kingdom of God. And given to leaders like David, both a shepherd and a prince, who are constantly attentive to people in need—and care for them.

This is the great message about power in the Bible—both the Old and New Testament. As the liberation theologist Gustavo Gutierrez says, “The nub, the nucleus, of the biblical message, is in the relationship between God and the poor. . . . [Jesus proclaims] a kingdom of justice and liberation, to be established in favor of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized in history.”[5] We hear that clearly in Matthew’s imagery of what Christ’s reign will be on his throne of glory. Our Shepherd King identifies with the hungry and the thirsty; the stranger and the naked; the sick and the imprisoned. And blesses and rewards those who feed, house, clothe, and respect them. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So I invite you this morning to consider that, like the kids on “Candid Camera,” your surprise vocation in the year 2014 might be to become a . . . shepherd. Look at your life and see where your flock is: who is lost, injured, or weak among your family, your friends; our church, our community. Who has drifted out of your sight. Who might need food, shelter, understanding, or the warmth of your friendship.

Share what you have—as good shepherds and good stewards—knowing that at another time in your life you may be that lost sheep needing someone else’s rescue. Reach out in person, knowing that showing up may be your greatest act of love.    

Because this is what the system of power looks like in the Kingdom of God. As Christ taught us, it is not hierarchical, but reciprocal: the power of love exchanged between us and God; the power of love exchanged between us and our neighbors. “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” And together, as God’s people, in this kingdom we are building, let us aim to both follow and lead with his power of love, compassion, and justice. Amen.

~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

November 23, 2014



[1] Mary Beth Gladwell, “The Shepherd Motif in the Old and New Testament” (2000) [http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue4/shepherd.htm].

[2] Massachusetts Bible Society, “Origins of the Shepherd/King Metaphor” [http://www.massbible.org/shepherd-king-question].

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepherd.

[4] Gladwell; James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 154.

[5] Gustavo Gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), pp. 13–14.