Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The connection between justice and care is often lost in contemporary Christian practice.
We’ve gotten the memo on the importance of care, and today’s gospel lesson more than adequately underscores that message. When Christ returns as Lord to judge the nations, the only question he will ask is whether we fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless (Matthew 25:41-45).
Christians therefore find countless ways to practice charity through any number of food drives and mission trips. We do not, however, always tend to the underlying causes of these great needs. By contrast, today’s lesson from Ezekiel holds justice and care together. The reading is reminiscent of Psalm 23 in its rich description of God’s care in gathering, resettling, and feeding the flock in good pasture (34:11-16).
It’s worth noting that God’s care is both implicitly and explicitly associated with justice. The connection is implicit in verse 16, which quite literally reverses the abuses of the false shepherds (34:1-10, esp. verses 4-6). God also explicitly corrects situations that might perpetuate injustice and abuse in the future: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16, see also verses 20-22). The connection is summed up in verse 16, where means for delivering care is justice: “I will feed them with justice.” Justice and care are kept in balance, as if they were two sides of the same coin.
Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd; viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.
For one thing, it rules out the exercise of power for its own sake and insists that it be used to support the flock’s flourishing. Invoking the shepherd metaphor in the preface to his Law Code, for example, Hammurabi explains that he was appointed by the gods “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak.”1 What the shepherd metaphor emphasizes, then, is the ruler’s responsibility to establish justice so that the people may flourish.
Ezekiel’s use of the good shepherd metaphor is squarely within this political tradition. The condemnation of Israel’s “shepherds,” probably the leaders of Israel and Judah but possibly also the rulers of Babylonia, is a political critique. Because the people have been exploited, the nation has been destroyed.
As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3). This exploitation does not simply damage the flock, it results in its scattering, leaving individual sheep vulnerable to further prey and the flock subject to yet further disintegration as it is scattered among the nations (34:5-6). In Ezekiel’s context, this scattering alludes to the disintegration of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersion and exile of its inhabitants among the nations.
As its shepherd, God visits the flock to “take stock” of the damage after it has been scattered (Heb. biqqer; NRSV “seek”; 34:11-12).2 “Taking stock” is an act of judgment, of discerning need before taking action. What ensues is a rescue operation, as God seeks out the sheep from all the countries to which they have been scattered.
Verses 13 and 14 dwell extensively on God’s action to gather the flock together to resettle them on the mountains of Israel, and to reassert his authority over them as their shepherd. Evoking themes of covenant and promise, the chapter dwells extensively on the re-establishment of the flock as a viable political community. Once again the flock will be known as the people of God; once again will God’s servant David serve as their shepherd (34:24); and once again they will live in safety in the land of Israel.
What is of first importance, then, is the recreation of a viable community. Care for the individual members of the flock — seeking the lost, tending to the injured, strengthening the weak — comes next and is presented as a reversal of the injustices that had been inflicted on the flock (compare verse 16 with 34:3-4). At the same time, God continues to correct the conditions that had contributed to the injuries in the first place: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy.”
All of this is characterized as shepherding justly: “I will feed them with justice” (34:16; see also 20-24). The balance between tending to individual need and addressing structural concerns is striking; it is also pragmatic. If a shepherd could reduce veterinary bills by mending a jagged fencepost or filling in a menacing pothole, she would save a lot of time and money, not to mention prevent a great deal of suffering in her flock.
As an act of deliverance from oppression and injustice, God’s care for the flock is a model not just of good shepherding, but also of wise ruling. As such it provides a basis for reflecting on the nature of Christ’s rule as it is portrayed in today’s New Testament readings — and our role as the people of Christ’s flock. Ezekiel 34 identifies injustice and oppression as a primary cause of the fragmentation of any community, not least God’s people.
The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.
1 ANET, p. 164, cited by Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 280-281.
2 Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 22A; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 699-700.