YEAR A: CHRIST THE KING OR THE REIGN OF CHRIST
November 20, 2011
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ezekiel was a prophet whose ministry spanned the tumultuous time from just before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE to around 563 BCE, into the time of exile in Babylon. His message contains words of judgment and comfort; judgment for the leaders and others who had betrayed God’s ways of justice, leading to punishment in the devastation of Judah. Later, he sounded a note of comfort and hope to those who were in exile and despair, promising that God would again gather them from the diaspora and bring them home to a restored Jerusalem where they could again worship the Lord in peace.
In the verses immediately preceding the lectionary passage for this week, the prophet Ezekiel is given a word of judgment for the shepherd kings of Israel. Instead of caring for the sheep, they have ruled them with harshness, feeding themselves and not their flocks. The people have been scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. In response, the Lord promises to put a stop to the abusive power of the kings. Written during the time following the exile, these verses look back and ascribe the present state of affairs to the betrayal and apostasy of the kings.
In vv. 11-13, the Lord puts himself in the role of shepherd, ‘I myself will search for my sheep’, promising to gather them back from the dispersion and to return them to their own land. In v. 14, the Lord shows himself a good shepherd (in contrast to the kings), one who will feed the sheep on good pasture. The imagery is pastoral, reminiscent of Psalm 23, with the sheep being led by watercourses, and being made to lie down in good grazing land. The imagery of shepherding was commonly used of kingship throughout the ancient Near East. In fact, the kings of Babylon and Assyria were often referred to as ‘the shepherds of the black headed people’, presumably referring to a common hair colouring.
In today’s passage, the metaphor of the sheep is extended to symbolize the return of the captives, the healing of those who are injured. The word of the Lord is not comfort only, but also includes judgment, as the ‘fat and the strong’ are to be destroyed. The sheep are to be fed on justice, with God’s promise of restoration to the land that had been taken from them.
In vv. 20ff, the image is continued, with the Lord as judge between the fat sheep, the leaders who ‘pushed and butted’, and the lean sheep, the vulnerable and oppressed peoples. God shows particular care for the weak and hungry, the injured and straying sheep, and expects those in leadership to exercise a similar care for those in need. Power brings with it the expectation of acting justly, and certain judgment for neglecting the duties that are inherent in the office of king or leader. Psalm 72 is a good example of what was expected of kings in ancient Israel. It is, of course, an ideal picture but it was the gauge against which the activity of kings was measured.
The Lord promises to save the flock, and to establish one shepherd leader over them. That shepherd will be ‘my servant David,’ who will feed the sheep like a proper and caring shepherd, modeled on God himself as the good shepherd, or ideal king. Verse 24 makes clear that David’s kingship will be under the authority of God; indeed, God will be king, with David as ‘prince’ among the people. Thus David will be able to rule with justice, remembering that God is the judge of all people, even (and perhaps especially) those holding authority over others.
In the verses following the reading for today, the rule of David is set in a larger context of peace and security for the people of Israel. This peace extends to security from threatening neighbours, with even the wild animals no longer a threat and the vegetation also cooperating to allay hunger in the land. All of creation contributes to the peace and prosperity of a restored people of God.
The passage from Ezekiel is chosen as a reading for Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday, as Christians see Christ as the descendant of David and heir to his throne in the realm of God. In celebrating Christ’s kingship in this context, then, the character of that kingship is marked by love and justice, not power merely. It also looks forward to the end time or eschaton, when God’s rule will be established over all.
The Ezekiel reading accords well with the Gospel for the day, with both speaking of separating the sheep from the goats, and in Ezekiel, the fat sheep from the lean sheep. In both, the doing of justice and care for the needy is the litmus test for God’s blessing or judgment on the peoples and leaders. Both look to the establishment of what Matthew calls the ‘kingdom of heaven’. While that kingdom and the rule of Christ is seen as a future event, it is nevertheless reflected in the life of the Christian community today.
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