Commentary on Jeremiah 23:1-6
Words one does not want to hear from God: “You have not attended to them. So I will attend to you” (Jeremiah 23:2).
It really does not matter much what the “them” refers to—the threat is clear without the historical context—but the language of the text makes things worse: these are “my people,” “my flock,” God’s own “sheep” that the shepherds have neglected and driven away.
The shepherds in this text would be the leaders and rulers, primarily the kings, who have failed in their primary task of protecting and nurturing those whom God has entrusted to their care. Ezekiel uses a similar image at about the same time—heading into the exile—spelling out in more detail the failure of the leaders. Rather than feeding the sheep, they have fed themselves, gathering the fat and the wool for their own use—literally, living off the “fat of the land.”
They have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, bought back the strayed, or sought the lost (Ezekiel 34:1-10). The list is significant because it tells us quite clearly what government is for in God’s eyes, and it “promises” judgment to those leaders who fail. Indeed, this failure is seen as one of the major causes of the exile. Bad leaders, we see, bring judgment not only on themselves, but wreak havoc on their entire nation, including those caught up in disaster through no particular fault of their own.
The end of the church year has traditionally been a time to be confronted with the judgment of God, not so much to cower in fear, but rather to take stock of ourselves, to repent, and to seek forgiveness and amendment of life. Not a bad thing for preachers to commend in these days.
But who is judged here? If it is primarily the leaders, preachers must first perhaps turn the text on themselves and ask to what degree they have failed in their call to give themselves for the sake of the people, especially the most vulnerable. Similarly, lay leaders and parishioners whose vocations place them in leadership roles should ask, “Is it I, Lord?” when hearing this text.
In the present world, of course, no one is totally off the hook. While those with greater responsibility have greater accountability, all of us in democratic governments bear responsibility for the common good. All of us in a church, made up of the priesthood of all believers, bear responsibility for the well-being of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even more so than in ancient world, this text becomes for us an equal-opportunity accuser.
God does not leave God’s people hopeless, however. The good news of this text applies to all as well. First, though, there is that matter of God’s “attending to”—coming into the throne room of Christ the King is and should be a scary matter. This is the real wizard of Oz, not the phony guy behind the curtain manipulating special effects.
John got it right in the Gospels: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2). The point of a liturgy and sermon that allows people to do this is not to terrorize for its own sake, nor is it to scream about the wrath of God. It is, I think, simply to help people realize that God is God (and so is Christ), while we are not. Thus, to come into God’s presence is a little like approaching a blast furnace. The blast furnace means us no harm, it is just hot. Hot enough, indeed, to burn away our impurities and prepare us for a new life.
And the new life is promised in the text. When leaders fail, God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” First, God becomes the shepherd, and only then does God raise up faithful leaders, including the “righteous Branch,” who will deal wisely, execute justice, and allow people to live in safety. Only God can pull off this job description fully, of course, which is why we learn in the New Testament that God has taken upon God’s own son this role of the righteous messianic ruler. In the text itself, the title given the king (“The Lord is our righteousness”) may be a play on the name Zedekiah, the last king of Judah prior to the collapse. If so, God promises something like a “new Zedekiah,” one who will succeed, a new beginning for God’s scattered people.
God promises to begin anew in every generation it seems, and now, with the introduction of Christ the King, Christ the Good Shepherd, Christ the Messiah, we proclaim and confess a new beginning that transforms us all—indeed, that transforms the world.
The primary work of transformation is done by God, of course, just as it is in the text. But what is our role in this? Back to the notion that, in Christ, we are all “kings” and “priests,” no longer merely subjects and bystanders for whom others provide guidance and mediation; we are all shepherds, no longer merely sheep. Under God, of course, we never cease being sheep—tended and nurtured by a loving Lord—nor would we want to; but we are also sent out as shepherds to “attend to” the tasks of governance described in our text and in Ezekiel 34 (above).
More, we are empowered to do this precisely because God always provides the safe harbor where we can be “sheep” again, fed by word and sacrament, nourished by pastoral care and ministry, supported by the mutual consolation of the saints, loved and cared for even when we falter. Back and forth we go, in and out of the sheepfold, fed to feed, blessed to be a blessing, loved in order to love, strengthened in order to give strength. Not a bad way to run a congregation—or a world.