< November 23, 2008 >

Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

 

The "kingship" of Christ is problematic for some of us today because of its male and hierarchical overtones.

Christ the King Sunday first emerged, as I understand it, as an attempt to counter the outlandish claims of some European dictators in the twentieth century. The real ruler of this age is Christ! The choice of Ezekiel 34 as the Old Testament reading is quite helpful in any case because while the shepherd metaphor, like the term king, is also royal, its overtones are much more nurturing and caring.

The first ten verses of Ezekiel 34 are a sustained indictment against the shepherd-kings of Israel. Ezekiel censures these political leaders for fattening themselves up at the expense of the sheep-citizens. The shepherd-kings have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed, or sought the lost (v. 4). Instead of feeding the sheep, they have made sure that they fed themselves. Verse 10 even asserts that they have fed literally on the sheep. Because of such corrupt rule by the shepherd-kings, the sheep-people have been scattered into exile. Describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE as a day of clouds and thick darkness (v. 12) makes the unusual claim that the day of the Lord is an event of the past.

In the Old Testament lesson, God counters this word of judgment with the promise of being a good shepherd for the people, one who promises to bring the people back from exile, feed them, and make them lie down in good grazing land (cf. Psalm 23:2). This divine shepherd will seek the lost, round up the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Provision of food is essential to this divine reign (vv. 13-14). This good shepherd provides a remedy for any ailment or distress of his sheep-people. Jesus both reaffirms and expands this picture when he asserts "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). John 10 is heavily dependent on the imagery proposed in Ezekiel 34.

This coming good and all-providing shepherd will also practice justice (v. 16) and make a distinction between the prosperous sheep-people and those whom they exploit (vv. 20-21). The corrupt leaders have had many followers and imitators. This theme of grace mixed with judgment also permeates vv. 17-19 which are left out in the lectionary. The attention in those verses shifts from the corrupt shepherd-kinds to the equally corrupt or fat sheep-citizens, whose lack of faith is shown by the way they treat their fellow citizens.  In many ways these verses form a parallel to Matthew 25:31-46, the Gospel for Christ the King, where the Son of Man distinguishes between the goats and the sheep on the basis of their deeds of social compassion toward the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. God promises the people salvation, but God also promises to judge between those who oppress and those who are oppressed (v. 22). In a similar way, God promises Israel a new Exodus in chapter 20. But then, after the Exodus, God will lead the people into the wilderness, where he will sort out the rebels and those who transgress against God (v. 28) before taking the rest of the people home to the land.

In the final two verses of this periscope, God the shepherd promises to set up a human shepherd, "my servant David," over them. This messianic promise institutes a reformed kingship that will replace the evil shepherds mentioned in vv. 1-10. Scholars debate whether Ezekiel predicted only a better king or whether he might even have expected a return of David himself. The words "I, Yahweh, will be their God" is often followed in the Old Testament by words like "they shall be my people," the technical term for this being the covenant formula.

This is one of the simplest and yet most profound ways of depicting the divine human relationship at its best. Ezekiel changes this formula by replacing its second part with "my servant David shall be prince among them." Significantly Ezekiel does not call the new human ruler a king, but uses instead an old term, here translated as prince (cf. 37:25 and 44:1-3). In a sense, this new ruler will be "king" in quotation marks.  The prince in a reformed Israel has few duties, and his primary perquisite is that he gets the best seat in the house at future religious celebrations (44:3). The coming king will not continue the oppressive and self-serving ways of his predecessors.  The current unease with the term Christ the King finds an ancient echo here. Our setting aside a Sunday for Christ the King should not imply that this king will bank on his maleness nor exert his rule in a hierarchical fashion.  He is a king, not according to human expectations, but rather a "king" after God's own heart.

The pericope ends with the reassuring words "I, Yahweh, have spoken." That is, everything said in this chapter is a promise, and God's promise is the only reason for us to believe in God. This is a sufficient reason indeed.