We’ve made it to the end of the road and it’s judgment time. We began this cycle of our life together as church on the first Sunday of Advent, and now the church year has wound its way to this moment when we declare that “Jesus reigns where’re the sun does its successive journeys run; his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons wax and wane no more.”
We’ve heard a word of encouragement this morning from the prophet Ezekiel. The prophet spoke these words to exiles living in Babylon. He told them that God is the shepherd who brings the scattered sheep living in exile back home to their own land. In doing this, God seeks out the lost, binds up the wounded, and strengthens the weak. When it comes to the “fat and strong sheep,” well, God will “feed them with justice.”
There are parallels between Ezekiel’s message and the Twenty-third Psalm. Like the Psalmist, the prophet speaks words of comfort and compassion to the flock, but as Wil Gafney reminds us, in the Psalm the shepherd is “armed to the teeth, a rod in one hand and a staff in the other” (Feasting on the Word, p. 314). In other words, you don’t want to mess with this shepherd who takes the job of protecting the sheep very seriously.
When you read a biblical text, you never know where your mind will go. This week, as I read the text from Ezekiel, another old rock song came to mind—Jefferson Airplane‘s “Good Shepherd.” This song actually goes back to an early nineteenth-century Methodist preacher. In the Jefferson Airplane version, we hear the chorus: “One for Paul, One for Silas. One to make my heart rejoice. Can’t you hear my lambs are callin? Oh good shepherd, feed my sheep.”
Ezekiel assures us that God hears the cries of the sheep and responds appropriately! God is the good shepherd who protects and cares for the sheep of God’s pasture. Ezekiel also reveals that God will feed justice to any sheep that butt in and scatter the other sheep. You know, the bullies! When it comes to feeding justice, it’s the prerogative of the shepherd to cull the sheep, and you know what that means!
While there are parallels between Ezekiel’s vision and Psalm 23, there are also parallels to Jesus’ vision of the Last Judgment found in Matthew 25. So, you can see why the lectionary pairs Ezekiel 34 with Matthew 25.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we hear Jesus speak of the Son of Man coming in glory to gather the nations before his throne so that he can judge between the sheep and the goats. The sheep inherit the realm of God, while the goats are sent away to a very unpleasant place. The Son of Man makes this decision on the basis of how sheep and goats treat the least among the citizens of the realm.
There aren’t any goats in Ezekiel’s vision. Instead, the shepherd separates out the fat sheep from the lean. This is the message Ezekiel delivered to the fat 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 shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” What that means is that the fat and sassy sheep who bully the rest of the flock will get sent off to the butcher for processing! As for the lean sheep, now that the bullies have been taken care of, they can finally thrive.
Although Ezekiel doesn’t explicitly reveal the identity of the fat sheep, he probably has Babylon in mind. When it comes to the lean sheep that would be Israel living in exile. If Israel is to return from exile and thrive when they get home, the oppressor will have to be dealt with. That’s what it means to feed the fat sheep with justice.
In both Ezekiel and Matthew, the shepherd king cares for the flock by making sure that justice is served and the flock as a whole flourish. While Ezekiel speaks words of comfort to Israel, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reveals a vision of God’s realm where God welcomes those living on the margins into the center of the realm. Therefore, the sheep of God’s pasture would be the “least of these [Jesus’] brothers and sisters” (Mt. 25:45).
In Ezekiel’s vision, God is the good shepherd, who hears the cries of the sheep and feeds them, just like the song suggests. As Ezekiel concludes this vision, he reveals that God is going to set up David as the shepherd who feeds the flock on God’s behalf. In the Christian telling of the story—and we need to remember that there is more than one way to apply the story—Jesus takes on the role of David, and he shepherds the sheep of God’s pasture. So, what message does Ezekiel have for us if we read it in light of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25? How does Jesus fulfill the call to serve as the shepherd of the sheep? If Jesus is called to provide comfort to those in need and feed justice to those who require it, how might we participate in this work? What does the Lord require of us?
We are asked to consider these questions as we live in the midst of a surging pandemic that continues to ravage the world. We live at a time when our nation is caught up in political divisions that are pushing people ever farther apart. So, as we celebrate the reign of Christ and prepare to observe a day of Thanksgiving on Thursday, how might we embody this word of compassion and judgment we hear both from Ezekiel and Jesus?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
November 22, 2020
Christ the King Sunday
Image attribution: Palmer, Samuel, 1805-1881. Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55851 [retrieved November 21, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Palmer_-_A_Shepherd_and_his_Flock_under_the_Moon_and_Stars_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.