Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“Thin Sheep, Fat Sheep, This Sheep, That Sheep”
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty used to all this sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Granted, it’s not exactly something I have a lot of experience with – sheep, or farm animals in general. But I think I get the picture of what it’s all about.
The shepherd cares for the sheep. Makes sure they’re fed. Protects them from predators. Leads them to green pastures and beside still waters. Sometimes the shepherd even goes off to look for a lost sheep, if he’s willing to risk the rest of the flock. And that’s the kind of shepherd that God’s supposed to be – one who cares about each individual sheep and rejoices over every one that’s found: Thin sheep, fat sheep, this sheep, that sheep!
The prophet Ezekiel is one of the Biblical writers who compares God to a shepherd who cares for, feeds, and guides the People of Israel. They’ve had a number of human leaders ruling over Israel at this point, but Ezekiel accuses these kings of being false shepherds – looking out for themselves instead of the sheep, ignoring the needs of the people, and allowing them to be scattered.
Ezekiel’s talking about kings that totally messed up – failing the people and letting them be conquered by foreign powers – failing so badly that some of the people have been sent into exile in Babylon. So now God will be their shepherd, the prophet tells us – the true shepherd that these human kings could not be. Ezekiel says that God will “bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land…”
God will be the shepherd of the sheep and will make them lie down. God will “seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, God will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong, God will destroy. God will feed them with justice.” From the prophet’s perspective, it sounds like God is on the side of the thin sheep and the weak sheep, but not so much the fat sheep and the strong sheep.
The lectionary reading for today suggests that I stop here at verse 16 and jump over to verse 20, but I keep reading anyway, and I find that this shepherd God has become a judge. Judging between fat sheep and lean sheep, between rams and goats. Some of the weaker sheep are being butted around by the stronger ones.
The first ones to the pasture are eating their fill, but then trampling on the rest of the field so the others go hungry. The first ones to the stream are drinking what they want of the fresh, clean water, but then ruining the water source with their dirty feet. And the shepherd judge is angry, as well he should be.
In places like China, people know what it’s like to try to survive on what’s left after the pasture has been trampled and the water source filled with dirt. While we sit comfortably in our offices, bemoaning the fact that we haven’t been able to upgrade the computer for a few years… On the other side of the world, women and children are sifting through computer junk yards.
Discarded computers from places like Canada are piled high, and they are carefully going through the wreckage, searching for usable pieces, any metal that can be melted down to make other things, anything at all that could be valuable. The fat sheep of North America have taken what we needed, and the junk has been passed on to the thin sheep of the 2/3 world. A pile of rusty old computers to sift through, and mercury leaking into their water and food supply as a result.
If there are fat sheep and thin sheep in God’s flock, it’s pretty clear that we are the fat ones. We are the ones in danger of God’s harsh judgement. For “I will judge between sheep and sheep” says the Lord.
I’ve passed that old man so many times now – the one who sits on the ground outside the grocery store, except when it’s raining. I don’t know where he goes when it’s raining. He’s been told off by the management for offering to push people’s shopping carts back from the parking lot, and for accepting their 25cent deposit as a reward.
So now he just sits. He doesn’t even say much to the people rushing in and out of the store. His clothes are dirty and worn, and he’s rubbing his hands together to try to get the blood moving again. How did he get there?
Well, he got sick and his wife left him because his mental illness was too much for her, and then he lost his job, and then he lost his house, and no one was there to take care of him and help him get well again.
Then he couldn’t get a disability cheque, because he didn’t have an address. And now, here he sits, on the damp pavement, face towards the ground, a skinny wretch of a sheep, while the fat sheep wheel their heaping carts past him to the parking lot.
The psalmist reminds us…
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
God is our shepherd who provides for all our needs. And yet, Ezekiel’s vision shows our God with a shepherd crook in one hand and a judge’s gavel in the other.
One of my first memories of going to the movies was when we went to see “Return of the Jedi.” I think it must have been a Professional Development Day, because we didn’t have school, and we went to a matinee at one of the theatres downtown, only about a 20 minute walk from our house. It was an exciting adventure. Mum was taking all four of us to see the movie, and she even said we could get some popcorn to share.
I think the trouble began early on when we complained about the walk to the theatre and began to bicker about who was walking next to who. When we arrived, we picked at each other in the line for the tickets, we argued about how big the bag of popcorn should be. We fought over who sat next to mum, and poked at each other during the movie.
Although I can’t remember the details, I imagine that my little brother got the worst of my bullying, and my older sister scoffed at how annoying we all were. Even as we left the movie theatre, we could not leave each other alone, going on and on until my mother could not contain her anger any longer.
“You ungrateful wretches!” she might have cried. “Look at what I did for you. I took you out. I paid for a movie. I bought you popcorn. And all you can do is fight each other. You embarrass me – the whole lot of you! I might as well leave you all right here!”
We were stunned and horrified at this outburst. Right there on the busy sidewalk, our mother was yelling at us, judging us, accusing us. I remember crying as we followed our mother home, and my siblings were crying too. I felt guilty.
I felt awful that I had hurt her so much, and even worse that my disgraceful behaviour had been so openly acknowledged.
When we got home, my mother made supper for us all, and then we knew that everything was okay again. We were not abandoned by my mother on the street corner, nor would she ever leave us.
God’s judgement of our actions and our inaction may make us feel just like that. Like a child standing on a street corner balling her eyes out. There’s no taking back what you did. There’s no fixing the hurt that you caused. You’re suddenly faced with the reality of your sinfulness, and there’s nowhere to hide. You’re naked before God, and God is holding up a mirror so you can see for yourself too.
But just as God makes us face up to our sin, God also provides for us in our weakness. “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David,” says the Lord, “And he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God…” Even after God judges between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Even after God pronounces judgement upon the fat sheep that pushed and butted at the weak sheep. Even then, God is the shepherd of the whole flock.
Just like the mother who took all her children home and made supper for them. God will feed us too, and God will set up one shepherd over us, one leader in the line of King David. Not a false shepherd, but a good shepherd who will lead us in God’s way, who will show us how to live, who will protect us from the wild animals, and gather us together when we wander. Thin sheep, fat sheep, this sheep, that sheep… Jesus is the Good Shepherd of all the sheep. He is our leader and our guide.
Today, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we also celebrate the fact that Christ is our King… “raised from the dead, and seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”
Today we celebrate the fact that Christ is our King – our leader – the one who gives us our orders – the one who shows us the way. Christ is our King. Or at least, Christ can be our king if we will let him – if we will follow him.
When our shepherd king comes, may he find us at his side and say to us… “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… for just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Amen.