July 18, 2021
Our second reading today is a short passage from the prophet Jeremiah critiquing the kings of Judah. As shepherds placed over the people, the kings have failed in their duty. Listen for God’s Word as it continues speaking to you.
READ Jeremiah 23:1-6
It seems to me… with both our readings today… that the main critique for a poor shepherd is that the poor shepherd divides. Through their actions, the poor shepherd scatters the sheep.
In Jeremiah’s time… the time when the outside threat of the Babylonians was high… when it would be the Babylonians who would bring pain and destruction… when it would be the Babylonians who would bring exile and separation… the prophetic critique… if you’ve noticed… isn’t against the Babylonians. They are cast as the agents of God’s judgment. With all the evil that the Babylonians bring… the prophets move them off to the side… and they focus their real critiques on the quality of the shepherds… on those who are to be setting the pace… on those who are to be the examples… the one’s put in place by God to care for God’s people. In scripture, the kings of both Judah and Israel were held to a higher standard… because they were kings over the people of God… because they were anointed by God’s prophets… because they were to ultimately meant to serve God and God’s ways. These kings in scripture… they could have been good kings by the standards of their day. They could have done well in expanding the territory… increasing trade… building up the military might of the nation… winning battles and keeping the peace at the borders. But by the judgment that came through the prophets these kings had failed to uphold God’s justice… failed in being the shepherd God demanded them to be. The standards of the day were not God’s standards. As we heard last Sunday, it may have been good business to cheat the poor with cheap goods… it may have been profitable to bury people in debt and fees… exploiting the alien and creating an enemy in the other may have united some in a common purpose… the loyalty of those who were worst off in Israel and Judah may even have increased through the efforts to bend the focus of their religion toward an unrealistic, theologically based nationalism. None of these actions are new to the world. We just keep recycling through them. Scripture gives witness to each of them during the time of the kings. All of these actions… every time they’re repeated no matter the context… all of these actions violate God’s standards. Amos criticized the false messages of the High Priest Amaziah who assured his king that Judah had God’s favor… that the enemy they faced in their time would not prevail. Jeremiah criticized those who put their trust in the Temple… in the building where God was supposed to dwell. The people… taught by poor shepherds… were misled in attaching their very existence to a symbol of faith that many at the time said could never fail… would never fall. The Temple in Jerusalem made Jerusalem an eternal city. But a stone building cannot contain the truth of God… no matter how ornate or filled with riches. The truth of God can only exist in the human heart. And the poor shepherds… through teaching the people to put their trust in lesser but more immediate things… had created a generation of fallow hearts.
So… the prophets came with a word of judgement against the hearts of the people. By name they carried the title of the people of God… but through their hearts… they were betrayed… they were shown to be otherwise. God’s Word hadn’t been sown because other standards had been made the norm. Jeremiah brought the word of the Lord… “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding of innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen.’” See Saints, it’s not that God despises wealth or prosperity… scripture never says that. The prophets speak against the heart that says in my prosperity, I no longer need God. The prophets speak against those who would divide… who would cut themselves off from the other children of God… who will say to themselves, “I have mine… and they are not my responsibility.” This makes for a poor shepherd. Because God gives us responsibility… one for another… and equips us… gifts us… puts a right spirit within us so that we embrace that responsibility. To the one whom much has been given much is expected. For some that much may be material. For others that much may be spiritual. God gives riches to all… we are all rich in God… and those riches differ for the better building up of the body as a whole… to benefit all of God’s children.
And that… caring for all of God’s people… that’s what spreads the critique out from just the kings or those who act from high places… it brings the prophetic critique down to all of God’s people. Being a follower of God… we are both shepherd and sheep. We feed and are fed. We give comfort and are comforted. We are prophets who critique and laborers in the vineyard who fall short, but by grace stand up… dust ourselves off… and try to love again as Christ loves us.
The poor shepherd divides. The good shepherd gathers the sheep… brings them into the fold where they can be fruitful and multiply according to God’s design. In the fold, our hearts are set free from the bondage of fear. The ground becomes fertile to accepting God’s Word. In the fold, the sheep do not devour the other sheep. Wolves devour sheep. Wolves make for poor shepherds as they prey upon the sheep. Even if in everything they are good wolves… successful wolves… wolves that are admired by other wolves. God won’t turn the blind eye to the righteousness of wolves. The righteousness of wolves is not the righteousness of the Lord. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The good shepherd gathers the sheep… gathers them all in so that none shall be missing. Which in God’s flock is expendable? Who can be eaten or consumed for the benefit of some? Who is to be left out of the flock? This was the challenge the righteous Branch brought to the shepherd called Paul. What sheep are to be in the flock? Just how big… how far does this flock of God’s sheep go? Just how serious are we to take the idea that none shall be missing? Does none really mean none? When does the gathering work of the good shepherd come to an end?
So from Ephesians… “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
The good shepherd gathers the sheep. The poor shepherd scatters the sheep… rebuilds the dividing walls… reignites the hostilities that can exist between us. The good shepherd expands the peace of the righteous Branch. The poor shepherd is always declaring war and making God’s children enemies of one another. The poor shepherd can only understand oneness as sameness.
It’s so funny to me how the poor shepherds like to use shepherd Paul as an excuse to build new dividing walls… because shepherd Paul… in taking the Word to the Gentiles… shepherd Paul proclaimed that the main thing was not the people in the phrase “people of God”… shepherd Paul proclaimed that the main thing was not the children in the phrase “children of God”… shepherd Paul declared that the main thing… the oneness… is God. “Of God” was the most important part of that phrase said the one who had once worked so hard to uphold the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile… between Jew and Christian… worked to subjugate through persecution and violence… through declaring fellow sheep to be outside of God’s small flock. This sheep called Paul had put on the clothes of the wolf until the righteous Branch showed him whose he was and what it meant when “The Lord is our righteousness.” This Paul traded his wolf inspired clothing for the clothing of a shepherd and the service of gathering.
The good shepherd gathers. There is space in the flock for all the sheep no matter their wool type. Because their oneness is in God. Gather in grace and trust in God’s steadfast love to inspire repentance. The transformation of the heart is God’s work. The good shepherd gathers. Yes but… what about that woman caught in adultery? She is a child of God. Gather her in. But what about that man who is a tax collector who has profited through greed and abuse of his neighbor? He is a child of God. Gather him in. What about that sheep who has wandered in circles through addiction, harming so many along their aimless journey? Child. Gather. What about that broken sheep, injured through abuse and disease? Child. Gather. What about this one who is different? Or that one who is different? The good shepherd gathers the sheep. The good God redeems the sheep.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Amen.