Old Testament Lectionary 19th July Trinity 7 Jeremiah 23:1-6

 

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.

Renderklippen 058.JPG

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

OT Lectionary Nov 23rd Christ the King Ezekiel 34:11-24

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!’