Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages
(First of all apologies to my faithful readers for the missing edition last week – I’ve been in bed with flu for seven days. That might also excuse this week’s ramblings)
If ever there was a passage which needed its context this is one. You only really get the ‘myself’ of v 11 and 15 if you read v 1-10, where the prophet is having a go at the ‘rulers’ of Israel for their self-centred ‘fat cat’ lifestyles. In a series of attacks on the ‘shepherds’ of Israel, God, through the prophet, condemns their selfish and indulgent lifestyle, their failure to care for the weakest in society, their brutality, their lack of concern that the people had become scattered across the land. The picture of ‘shepherd’ is not primarily about pastoral care: it is often used to describe kingship. The role of the king is to rule over people well so that they and the nation as a whole thrive. Get that wrong, and both the people and the corporate life of the nation suffer. So, says God, because you have got it so horribly wrong, and because I simply cannot find anyone who is up to doing the job properly, there is only one possible alternative: I myself will do it.
So to v 11: God himself will search for his lost sheep, rescue them, gather them once again in Israel, because they have been so badly led down by their human leaders. There is clearly a reference here to the restoration of the nation after the Babylonian exile.
But the text moves on: after the completely unnecessary piece of filleting of v 17-19 the prophet turns from the rulers to the people themselves. By all accounts they have not behaved any better. There are still fat and lean in society, and an unholy scrabbling for position, things which again God himself will have to sort out.
But this raises an important question, to which we already know the answer. What is the relationship between corrupt rulers and ungodly people? Obviously that bad leadership trickles down and affects the general behaviour of the public. You simply can’t have corrupt politicians running a godly nation. Whatever people see in their leaders they will imitate. Our own times have seen a massive loss of respect for political leaders who are seen to be sleazy, dishonest, often corrupt, possibly child-abusers, and ultimately self-serving. Other institutions such as the monarchy, police, the judiciary, banks and of course the Church are treated with the utmost suspicion. The rich elite get richer as the poorest get poorer still. The cry goes out ‘Whom can we trust?’
Into a world like that the prophet’s words ring out. What we need is a shepherd, a king, in whom we can put our trust, one who is for us not against us; one who will care for us rather than harm us. The festival of Christ the King reminds us not just of the possibility but actually the certainty of such a reign, and our daily newspapers remind us how desperately we need it. That’s why from Advent Sunday next week we’ll be praying all the more fervently ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’