Ez. 34: 11-12, 15-17; Ps. 23;
1Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28 Matthew 25: 31-46
Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions”
A person walks into a room, crowded with confused and noisy people and asks, “Who is in charge here?” The people need guidance, help and someone who can restore order. They need a person to take charge to do what they obviously cannot do for themselves.
Today’s Ezekiel passage is part of a longer text (34:1-31), where the prophet criticizes the leaders of the people for their corruption and failures of leadership. They have abused their power and been bad shepherds. The recent national elections remind us that leadership must be practiced with honesty and responsibility. Not so with the leaders of Israel, who had served themselves off the backs of God’s people. In other words, the “room” is in chaos and the question is asked, “Who is in charge here?” Ezekiel gives a clear answer.
There are a lot of first-person pronouns in today’s Ezekiel reading – “I” – “I myself,” – “I will.” Who speaks with so much authority? Ezekiel answers that question in the opening line, “Thus says the Lord God….” The answer to the question – God is in charge. Despite appearances, confusion and the miserable condition the sheep are in, the prophet speaks for God. He assures them they will return from exile; God will shepherd them back to their own land and restore them to God’s ways.
That is quite a lot for the dispirited exiles to hear. In light of their miserable condition, how can they trust Ezekiel’s word? That is where the first person pronouns come in. The prophet is not speaking on his own, he makes it very clear God will do for the exiles what they cannot do for themselves. “I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered…”
During the campaigns and after the [USA] election, commentators have noted how divided we are in our country. The splits showed in contentious debates, advertising and rallies. Shall we receive Ezekiel’s promise and ask God to be our shepherd and gather us scattered sheep? That is asking a lot, but God has the power and authority to do what Ezekiel promised the exiles. The reading gives us reason to pause and ask ourselves, “In what exile am I living these days? How do I feel displaced? Where and to whom am I turning for restoration?” The prophet reminds us that God has not forgotten us. Can we put trust in God’s words? “‘I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will give them rest,’ says the Lord God.”
That is what Jesus the Good Shepherd did, just as Ezekiel promised: “Tend God’s sheep”; “rescue them from every place where they are scattered”; “give them rest”; “seek out the lost”; “heal the sick.” The gospels reveal that Jesus fulfilled the promise God made to the exiles. He did all that humbly, as he said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). He taught his disciples to do the same; not to rule over others, but to be their servants.
Yet twice in today’s parable Jesus calls himself king. While we shy away from using titles like king and queen in our society, in the Hebrew Scriptures God is frequently referred to as “King” of the people. But a different kind of king, one who rules over the people with justice; rescues the poor; saves those in need and delivers the people from injustice (cf. Ps 72). That is what the rule of God meant to the Israelites and that was the role Jesus proclaimed in his inaugural sermon in the synagogue (Luke 4: 14-30). Jesus was a king, but a shepherd king to God’s scattered and injured people.
Today’s parable reminds us that we are to act as kings (queens), ruling as the Hebrew Scriptures describe God does and Jesus showed – by loving neighbor, forgiving enemies and, as the parable makes quite explicit, caring for those who are hungry, thirsty, in need, or in prison. Jesus, our King, has freed and enabled us to do as he did. Remember, at our baptism we were anointed priest, prophet and royalty. Hearing the parable we ask ourselves, how can we act as King Jesus did, so that people will know our King lives.
As Barbara Reid, OP suggests in her excellent commentaries on the gospel parables … the reader has learned that throughout Matthew Jesus has stressed the necessity of doing righteous deeds and not just saying, “Lord, Lord” (7:21 – 27; 21:28-32). His disciples were not to imitate the scribes and Pharisees, but must put his teachings into action. And the parable suggests we must do just that today! We note that prisoners are the last in Jesus’ list of the “least.” How can we make sure they are on our list as well? (One way to do that is to visit the imprisoned through the mail.
These months of the pandemic have highlighted the desperate need of the poor, and those newly impoverished by loss of jobs, businesses and medical bills. Jesus directs us Christians today, even if our resources are limited, to ask ourselves: What can we share with those Jesus so powerfully identifies with in today’s parable? Meanwhile, as we prepare for Advent next week, we can take up the prayer, with the hope, the parable prompts, “Come, Lord Jesus.”