Ode to a Shepherd
“Ode to a Shepherd” – Rev. Rhonda S. Cooper – November 22, 2020
Ezekiel 34:11-16, Matthew 25.31-40, 41-46
Jesus was well aware of both the Psalms and the Prophets, having heard them recited as a child on his mother’s knees, and as a young person at the feet of the rabbis. He too recited the 23rd Psalm, perhaps the best-loved, most comforting verses of the entire Bible, even to this day. He likely was transfixed by the prophecies of Ezekiel, which extolled the virtues of the Good Shepherd and lamented the failings of Israel’s unrighteous leaders. Then, as an adult who felt the irresistible claim of God on his life, he clearly perceived his ministry through the lens of all that he had learned from the Hebrew Scriptures and his teachers. Echoing the words of the Scriptures, we remember that he famously proclaimed, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd.” (John 10.11)
Sometimes we think that the image of shepherd does not resonate in the 21st century, since by and large we are not a people who live close to the land as did our forebears. I know no one who keeps sheep, and I’ve only known one person who kept a little goat as a family pet. My forebears were often noted as “farmers” in the census reports, usually because they were renting a little piece of land in east Tennessee where they and their families led a hardscrabble life. I do not relate to the agrarian pursuits of farming or shepherding, yet to this I do relate, which is the deeper meaning of today’s scripture lessons: that is, the idea that a leader can be either – self-absorbed and corrupt, always weighing decisions in terms of how he or she could benefit, – or other-focused and aware of how others, and especially the least, the last and the lost – will be affected by his or her governance and decision-making. And church, this is a relevant topic to consider no matter the date or time.
So, let us hear a word of truth from Ezekiel as well as Jesus on this topic of faithfulness, especially that of those in leadership. First, be apprised that in the ancient world the image and role of Shepherd was universally applied to political leaders. Even the famous Code of Hammurabi, written by the king of the Babylonians almost 4000 years ago, Hammurabi referred to ruler and subject as Shepherd & Sheep. Then 1200 years after the rule of Hammurabi, the prophet Ezekiel echoed what was commonly accepted in antiquity, that the primary purview, the primary exercise of the shepherd’s power was for the protection of the people, the proverbial flock, especially those weak and wandering members, the hungry and helpless ones, those caught in the brambles ordiminished by disease. So that, in Hammurabi’s time, in Ezekiel’s day, during the lifetime of Jesus himself, the Monarch who ruled as a true shepherd was the ideal person to be “in charge” of people – politically, socially, ethically and morally.
If we had read out loud the verses in Ezekiel 34, immediately preceding the Old Testament lesson which Audrey read to us, we would have encountered the prophet’s harsh judgment on the failures of the “shepherds” of ancient Israel. The prophet Ezekiel was blistering, in fact, as he spoke of these rulers’ callous, uncaring actions; unjust decisions; and narcissistic judgments. “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. Instead,” he preached, “you have ruled them with harshness and brutality.” He might have even added, “Woe to you Shepherds who have no heart or soul, and you will fail and fall.” And of course, in the history of ancient Israel, that is exactly what happened. So that the failings of leadership formed the backdrop to the lesson we have heard, that of the Good Shepherd, preached by Ezekiel as a beacon of hope for the people, depressed and oppressed as they were.
This Good Shepherd, the hope of Israel, vv. 11-16, in contrast to these heartless shepherds of vv. 1-10, the Good Shepherd would embark upon a serious, unceasing “search and rescue” mission, not passive, but seeking out the least, last and the lost; the widow, the orphan, the impoverished. A Shepherd who would feed their bellies as well as their souls with respect, regard, and redemption. With their needs as important, if not more important, than the shepherd’s own. With justice and reward, not for a few, but for all. In dramatic poetic expression
Ezekiel lifts up the hope for the nation, that the Good Shepherd, even if it took God’s own Self to break into human history, this Shepherd with a Soul would be the hope of humankind.
Against this marvelous backdrop of history and prophecy, Jesus embraced his own call to be Shepherd of his people, leader of the faith, savior of the soul and liberator of the spirit. He envisioned a community of like- minded citizens, who similarly would be about the work of caring for the least of these, the last in line, the lost, the estranged, the imprisoned, the afflicted, the thirsty and hungry. He said, “I am the Good Shepherd, my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I am the Good Shepherd” he famously proclaimed. (John 10.27)
Friends, I believe that Jesus looked for sheep to follow him who would become shepherds in their own right, leaders who would be willing to put the needs of others before their own, who would look out for the people entrusted to their care instead of overlooking them. Leaders with a heart and soul, with eyes to see and ears to hear. With this in mind, shepherding suddenly takes on a whole new significance in this so-very-modern world of ours. For these are difficult days, perhaps more akin to the days of Ezekiel and the prophets than we would care to admit.
Our newspapers are full of reports about leaders who line their own pockets at the expense of the poor, who are indicted for illegal actions, who stack the deck in their own favor, who ignore the cries of the afflicted and infected. There is even a preacher in South Africa, named Shepherd of all things, a multimillionaire who enriched himself at the expense of his impoverished followers. He is on the lam after being accused of, yes, fraud and money laundering. We are almost surprised when we read of a benevolent leader, one who puts the needs of others above his or her own. Yes, these are difficult times.
As people of faith, I believe we have every right to expect our leaders – at every level of governance – to put the interests of others above self-interest, to advocate for those are marginalized, voiceless and bereft, to weigh carefully the impact of their decisions on the people, to attend to the health and well-being of the citizenry. This is the Gospel truth: We can expect the best from our political leaders, elected or appointed, as well as our ecclesiastical leaders. The yardstick for Shepherd-leadership is the same no matter the setting, religious or secular. For in God’s economy, it is never just about the money.
In the 25th chapter of Matthew, we have this dramatic scene of the Good Shepherd as Judge and Jury, separating the sheep from the goats, handing out reward and punishment, words of validation and revulsion … confirming our belief that what we do and what we neglect to do matters in a cosmic as well as temporal sense. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” said Jesus. And whether we are comfortable with the notion of reward and retribution, heaven and hell, we clearly get the point that our actions – and inactions – have consequences, in this life as well as the next. Faithful shepherding is not just doing no harm, as our preacher Mr. Holloway reminded us last week, rather, it is about acting as the Good Shepherd himself would act.
We my friends, we Sheep who have decided to follow the Good Shepherd are also called to be shepherds in our own day – with the example of Jesus before us. Our mission is clear: to seek and serve the least, the last, and the lost. The hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. I invite you to claim and embrace your calling, as a member of God’s own flock, to continue the mission and ministry Christ has set for all of us. Claim it we must, for we are colleagues of the Good Shepherd.
So be it. Amen.