Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: 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. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
Jer 23:1-4; excerpt from lectionary text for Nov. 24, Jer 23:1-6.
I spent the week coming down with a cold, although I didn’t know it till Friday when it bloomed unmistakably and I realized what had been the problem of the prior days. I also spent the week pondering the ‘wrong’ text — that is, the lectionary text for Sunday November 24. I blamed the calendar mixup on whatever virus had been percolating, decided that the text was scheduled right for my life, and pondered it anyway.
The start of the week, I had been focused on the middle line of this passage, the transition where the LORD commits to shepherd the sheep. Psalm 23 and John 10 are too familiar for me not to read this text in resonance with their rhythms. Nor will I resist the comfort of the LORD God-self being my Good Shepherd, whose voice I know and follow to pastures green and waters still.
Yet by week’s end, it wasn’t just my cold that had bloomed. As national investigations moved to a new phase, the opening verses loomed larger in my mind. Their renewed-to-me prominence sharpened my sense of the shocking premise of the central promise.
Jeremiah is not speaking just of the last kings of Judah in the opening verses. Jeremiah is speaking the LORD’s word against any ‘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’ (Jer 22:13). The denunciation is scathing. ‘Are you a king because you compete in cedar?’ (22:15). Kingship is not living in a ‘spacious house’ — whether multi-winged and white or cedar-paneled and vermillion-painted (22:14) — but doing justice and righteousness, hearing the cause of the poor and needy (22:16). The word of the LORD is against any who imagines that sheep exist just so that he can be shepherd and does not realize that he is shepherd because there are sheep to herd.
Except that, actually, sheep are gathered and led and watered for the sake of the shepherd. Whatever may have been the wild origin of the family ovine, sheep were domesticated so that humans could benefit from their fleece and their milk and their meat. In that sense, the sheep are meant to benefit the shepherd. The crime of the leaders of Judah is that they imaged that the sheep were meant to benefit them; they did not see that their duty to the nation was their duty to the LORD. ‘My flock,’ the LORD says, ‘sheep of my pasture.’ The flock — the kingdom — is not the possession of its leaders, to use as they see fit. The flock is God’s own. The leaders are merely stewards, charged to husband the flock they hold in trust for the LORD.
What, then, accounts for the LORD’s commitment to shepherd the flock God-self? The reference is relatively slight in this particular passage but recurs elsewhere. God will shepherd God’s flock, seeking the lost, and binding up the injured, and feeding them with justice (Ezek 34:11-16). For whose sake does God do this? To whom are those sheep owed that the LORD — God whose arm rules, whose palm has held the waters and marked the heavens — should lead them so gently, and carry the lambs (Isa 40:10-12)?
It is easy enough to juxtapose the news and the word. The world is still rife with leaders who imagine the position is about power rather than about service, who do not recognize the obligation owed to others. The LORD has a word for that. But that word reveals a puzzle: that the LORD should so dearly desire the proper shepherding of God’s flock as to undertake shepherd work. Does the LORD owe this to God-self? (Far be it from you, the Judge of all the earth, to act unjustly, Abraham argues with God in Gen 18:25; Remember the oath you swore by your own self, Moses reminds the LORD at Sinai in Exod 32:13.). Does the LORD owe it to us, made in God’s own image and likeness, enlivened by the LORD’s own breath (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7)? Or is this but the same obligation, twice-stated: the LORD shepherds the sheep not only because we are God’s own possession but because in some way we are part of God-self, God’s children, first-born and dearly-beloved (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; John 1:12). Love the LORD your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, God commands (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:29-30). Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31).
Maybe the LORD shepherds us because God loves us as we are to love our neighbors, as God loves God’s own self: with all God’s heart and mind and soul and strength. Maybe the LORD shepherds us as invitation into God’s own love, for the sake of ourselves and of each other and for God’s sake too.