Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
The motif of God himself stepping in to care for his people because of the lack of care given by their earthly ‘shepherds’ is not an uncommon one in the OT. Ezekiel notably uses this image in chapter 34. Clearly a metaphor for the kings and rulers of the nation, the shepherds have failed to administer justice or rescue the oppressed and the victims of crime (21:12). Instead they have their hearts set on dishonest gain, oppression and bloodshed (22:17). Therefore God is going to do two things: he is going to step in and shepherd his people himself, and make a proper job of it, but he is also going to raise up a new king who will do what is just and right (23:5). It is not clear whether this will be as well as God’s own care for the people, or after it, or even whether God’s personal ministry will be exercised through this new Davidic king, whom of course we know to be his Son, and whose ministry the gospel reading for today picks up, as he ministers to sheep who have no shepherd at all.
But what is going to happen in the meantime? Clearly in context Jeremiah is writing on the eve of the Babylonian exile, and in this passage he explains, somewhat confusingly, that it is the false shepherds who have ‘scattered’ the people into exile, (v 2), but also that it is God who has done the scattering (v 3) and will also do the re-gathering. This raises an interesting question about the exile, and about our own experiences of suffering and abandonment. When in my other blog I discussed Jonah, I made the point that the whale wasn’t punishment for Jonah: it was rescue, unpleasant and scary though that rescue may have been. Is it possible, therefore, that the exile was less a punishment on the oppressed people, and more a rescue from their oppressors? It is certainly the case that after the exile the monarchy never functioned in the ways it had before: this was real and radical regime change, and it may have been the case that the old system needed not just breaking but destroying totally in order that something more functional could replace it.
Of course there are many other references to the culpability of the ordinary people and their punishment through the exile, but maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other. When disaster hits us it is a common reaction to ask the question ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ and in some cases there will be a clear answer to that question. But I wonder whether another question, equally valid, might be to ask ‘From what or whom is this going to save me?’ Only this last week I was surprised to hear myself in prayer giving thanks to God for one of the greatest disappointments of my life, because it saved me from what would have ended up as a disastrous career move. Maybe there are things which you can see in the same way. And maybe, like me, you can find new hope and faith in the fact that God’s plans are perfect, painful though they may be at the time.
Image: “Renderklippen 058” by Koosg – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG#/media/File:Renderklippen_058.JPG