Woe to the Shepherds

Year B – Proper 11 (7.22.18); Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Oh boy. God is angry. God is really, really angry.

And, we Episcopalians, we tend to shy away from the angry God. We much prefer the Jesus from today’s gospel reading: The God-in-flesh who is moved with compassion and who restores the broken to wholeness. We like that version of God. It’s so nice. And yet, here we are: God is angry this morning.

Now, we may be tempted to flee away from this passage in Jeremiah, but I think we should resist the urge to flee. Because if all the other things we say about God are true – if God is love, if God upholds justice and mercy, if God nurtures us like a mother – then knowing why a God like that is angry is really important. If love is our goal, then knowing what angers the God of love is crucial.

And so, we must ask the question: What has got the God of love so worked up, anyway?

At first glance, it may seem like God has it out for shepherds. But, Jeremiah isn’t talking about men and women who tend flocks of animals on the Judean hillsides. He’s actually using an ancient near eastern metaphor. For Jeremiah, “shepherd” was a code word for “king.”

Think about this: Just like shepherds, kings had charge over a vulnerable flock. They had to protect and provide for their citizenry. This association with shepherds not only reminded kings of their duty to their people, but also humbled them by comparing their royal office to that of the most lowly and unclean members of their society. So, when we go back and read Jeremiah’s words, God isn’t angry at a bunch of slacking off shepherds; He’s angry at a bunch of corrupt kings.

Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry spanned the reigns of four kings. And it was during the reign of the fourth and final one – a guy by the name of Zedekiah – that God instructed Jeremiah to deliver a message of judgment to the royal palace.

Now, the thing to know about Zedekiah is that he was a puppet king installed by a foreign power. He had been put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, the warrior king of Babylon, whom Jeremiah calls “the destroyer of nations.”

The nation of Judah was under the thumb of Babylon until one day the puppet king Zedekiah decided he’d no longer pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, he decides to revolt against the king of Babylon and, ignoring the advice of every single person around him, Zedekiah makes a military alliance with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. This does not go well.

As Jeremiah walks to the royal palace to deliver God’s message, the armies of Babylon encircle the boundaries of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar has come to settle his account with Zedekiah. And Jeremiah is well aware that he is about to prophecy to the fall of a nation.

In 22:3, Jeremiah, standing before Zedekiah and his whole court, says this is what God asks of kings: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

After issuing this divine domestic policy, Jeremiah spends the next 19 verses reporting all the ways the royal line has already failed to uphold it: Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; whose eyes and heart are only on dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.

Jeremiah concludes this indictment of the Judean kings with the passage we read aloud this morning: Woe to the shepherds who destroy; to the shepherds who scatter; to the shepherds that drive away.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the God of love is angry when injustice, oppression, and violence – when sin – afflicts and harms the sheep of His pasture! But especially when that sin comes at the hands of the shepherds, bringing ruin to the flock. God’s anger is His love turned against anything that would destroy what He loves.

In fact, Jeremiah’s words could also be rendered something like, “Woe to the shepherds who have broken and banished my flock and who have neglected them.” Or, “Woe to the shepherds who have turned my sheep against one another and have turned them away.”

I don’t know about you, but that kind of destruction sounds a little too familiar to me. It makes me think that the God of love might have some angry words for some modern shepherds. It makes me think that the modern plight of the alien, the orphan, and the widow might have the God of love a little worked up.

But, as always, the anger of God is never devoid of the compassion of God. And His judgment of the present is never devoid of the promise for a greater future.

Jeremiah goes on to say: The days are surely coming when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which we will be called: ‘The Lord is our Righteousness.”

Remember the king that Jeremiah is speaking to – Zedekiah? His name literally means, “Righteous is the Lord.” Jeremiah takes his name and he flips it: “The Lord is our Righteousness.” Jeremiah is saying: “There’s a new king coming! And he’s going to be the exact opposite of what we got right now!” And this new king will gather, multiply, and comfort the flock and he will finally fulfill that divine domestic policy.

And for those of us in the Jesus Movement, we know the new king is Jesus! God, in His compassion has come to the defense of His flock. And it seems by instinct that the sheep of His pasture know that their security and prosperity can only be found in Him. For there were kings in the Psalmist’s day, but he says, The Lord is my shepherd. And there were emperors and kings in Jesus’ day, but the people flocked to Him.

Jesus is not a puppet hiding in a palace, but a king exalted on a cross; He’s not a shepherd unfamiliar with our pain, but a lamb that for the sin of the world was slain. Jesus is the one who transforms our understanding of the lordship of kings – the one who bears that name: “The Lord is our Righteousness.”

When we leave here today we will choose – as we do every day – what shepherds we will follow: The shepherds of our politics, finances, and morals. We will choose whose pastures we belong to. I respectfully propose that if our shepherds do not look like the lamb, then they are not worth following. Amen.