When I was a child, I admired my mother for reading the Bible through every single year. She had and has a simple method: three chapters every weekday and five on Sunday. Starting around third grade, I tried this. Usually I got bogged down in the Leviticus/Numbers area and then pulled up my socks and caught up. I was really grateful that Psalm 119 was preceded by Psalm 118. And I learned to love the Bible for its vivid, gritty realism and the complex and coherent picture of God’s love for human beings.
One of the books I had trouble getting through, I have to say, was the book of Ezekiel. If you want to explore why that might have been, I invite you to reread it cover to cover, imagining yourself to be around eight or even twelve years old. It’s a doozy. So after years of avoiding it, I felt motivated to reread it this summer, and to my surprise, found that Jesus must have loved this book. A lot of the things Jesus has to say are echoes of the book of Ezekiel. So today, we’re looking at this one set of echoes, the shepherds and the sheep.
You’ve already thought of the main passages we will look at from the Gospels, and I won’t disappoint you. We’ll talk about comparisons Jesus made between himself and a shepherd, the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the commands Jesus gave to the cowardly and remorseful Peter after the resurrection. And then we will see just a bit of how that plays out in the early church. What it means for us will show up along the way.
You shepherds take care of yourselves, but you never tend the sheep. They are weak, sick, wounded, strayed and lost. The sheep are easy prey because there is no shepherd. I will rescue my sheep from you. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will find them a place to rest.
You shepherds are also my sheep. You are fat and strong and healthy while the others are skinny and weak and suffering. You are, in fact, goats. You tread down the good pasture after you’ve eaten; you muddy the water after you have drunk from it; you butt the weak aside and scatter them.
I will judge between sheep and sheep, between sheep and goats. I will rescue my sheep from you “shepherds.” I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will find them a place to rest. I will bless my sheep with water, food, safety, home, freedom, fearlessness, and satisfied minds.
Jesus says, Sheep at rest are in an enclosure with only one opening, and I am that opening. I am the door into the sheepfold and the door into the pasture. I am the shepherd who goes in that door and who leads the sheep in and out of the enclosure. When I call them out of the fold, they follow me, because they are used to my voice and used to doing what I say. Any individual sheep that goes into my sheepfold goes through me and is my sheep. Anyone who climbs over the wall is avoiding me, and thus is not my sheep and will do the sheep harm. That interloper wants to steal the sheep away.
Notice that in both Ezekiel and John that the analogies are not exactly drawn. God is angry at shepherds, and those shepherds are also sheep. Jesus is the door, and the one entering by the door for whom someone else opens it, and the true shepherd. I don’t think we have to worry about reconciling these pictures because each aspect helps us understand something a little different about the truth being taught.
The judgment in Ezekiel (18, 22, 33) is for disregard of the Law:
- · participating in worshiping anything besides God
- · having sex with another’s wife or with a menstruating woman
- · committing incest, violating family members
- · cheating the poor and the foreigner, exploiting the widow and the orphan
- · robbing people
- · keeping for oneself what people give as security for a loan
- · charging high interest when lending money
- · ignoring God’s prohibitions against uncleanness
- · violating the Sabbath
- · thinking that God doesn’t see them
- · killing the innocent
- · controlling others through fear and magic
- · lying, breaking one’s word
- · sacrificing children
- · dishonoring parents
- · disrespecting holy places
- · eating meat with the blood in it
- · treating those under God’s judgment with scorn
Proverbs 6:16-19 says God hates these things: a proud (lifted up) eye, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a mind that makes devious plans, feet that hurry to give pain or cause misery, a deceitful witness, and the one who sends strife into families or the community
Positively, then, what does God expect from people in the Old Testament?
- · Put God first in everything
- · Respect God in heart and in action
- · Put what God has said is important first
- · Let God be in control rather than trying to control God
- · Respect what God has said is holy
- · Exercise self-control over sex
- · Be generous and fair to the foreigners, the less powerful, and the poor
- · Be fairminded in arguments
- · Tell the truth
- · Be content with what God has given
The whole Bible confirms these priorities.
In John 10, when Jesus uses this language about being the shepherd, this is a clear assertion that Jesus’s authority comes directly from his Father and our Father, and Jesus is competent to judge us and to lead us.
When Jesus judges, as portrayed in the story of the Sheep and the Goats, the judgment sounds very Old Testament, but Jesus particularly zeroes in on how people treat the needy and lost:
When the Son of Man (link to Ezekiel) comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these children of my Father, you did for me.
Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
They also will answer, Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?
He will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
This always calls me to serious self-examination. Have I said no when another human being calls to me for help? Even if the call is voiceless, am I off the hook? How can I be right with God; how can I be a good sheep? I need daily to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, and follow Him everywhere he goes, recognizing that every human being is kin to Jesus, even the people I can hardly look at, whose need is so ugly to me I can’t see the person. What I can take to heart is that Jesus is the one I need to practice listening to and Jesus is the one I need to obey.
Jesus says more about what God expects in Matthew 5 and 6:
You are the salt of the earth. But if you are not flavoring the world, how can you be made more salty? You might as well be fine sand. You are the light of the world, like a city on a hill or a lamp. You can’t hide a hill city and no one hides a lit lamp under a bowl. Instead, they put it in a prominent place where it can give light to everyone in a house. Similarly, behave well so that your light shines in your world and people will praise God for you.
I haven’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Anyone who breaks the least of the commands and teaches others to do so will be least in the kingdom of heaven, but anyone who practices and teaches these commands will be great in the kingdom of heaven. You have to be more righteous than the professionally righteous people around in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Not only can you not murder someone, you also must not hold another person in contempt because of being angry with that person. You can’t offer a gift acceptable to God with contempt for another person in your heart. God will be sure your heart is right, so cooperate as quickly as you can.
Not only can you not commit adultery, you must not indulge lustful fantasies about another person. Don’t think you can blame your body for this—if that’s what you think, you should be blinding yourselves or cutting off body parts to prevent yourselves from sinning.
Not only must you be formal about divorce, but you cannot just casually walk in and out of marriage because it is legal to do so. This is the same as committing adultery.
Not only must you be truthful when you invoke the Lord’s name to vouch for you, you must be truthful whether or not God is your witness. You should simply say what is so. Otherwise you’re covering something up.
Not only must you limit revenge to the harm done you, but you must be generous with those who harm you or want something from you.
Not only must you love your neighbor, but you must love your enemy and pray for those who make your life unpleasant.
Try being more like God, your Father, who sends sunshine and rain to both evil and good people. Extend your love to all.
In Ezekiel, John, and Matthew , the authority to judge is clear. God is the judge to whom shepherds are responsible, and the shepherd to whom sheep are accountable. And in Ezek. 7, God warns the people, “I will judge you in the same way you have judged others.” This sounds a lot like Jesus in Matt. 7: “Don’t judge, so you won’t be judged, because you will be judged in the same way you judge.”
All of us have a judge who sees into each of our hearts, and to whom each of us is accountable for our actions and our thoughts.
When I am living each day waiting for the Good Shepherd to lead me out of the enclosure and into the pasture, listening for that familiar voice and doing what it says, I am so focused on Jesus that I do not even notice how good I’m being when I do what Jesus says. No self-approval, no approval by others, just obedience. If I’m at peace with Jesus and peace rules my heart, I’m not likely to spend much time judging others. I will be able to speak even hard things to them out of a loving relationship that makes it possible for them to hear me.
And finally, the remorseful Peter and what happened to him. Peter said I will die for you, Jesus, and Jesus said you think so, but you will deny me instead; Satan wants to sift you like wheat but I have prayed for your faith not to fail and that after your conversion you will strengthen the others. So in John 21, Jesus three times commissions Peter with feeding and taking care of Jesus’s sheep, those who know his voice and follow him.
And what happened through Peter in the early church? Peter saw the pigs in a blanket and God told him to kill these unclean animals and eat them. Peter said, “I have never eaten anything forbidden by the Law as unclean.” And God said, “If God has cleansed it, it’s clean; don’t call it unclean.” And thus God’s Spirit made clear that the Good News is for Gentiles, for all unclean peoples, as well as for those born or converted to Judaism. Peter met with the Roman Cornelius, and he said these words, “I perceive it is true that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation the person who fears God and obeys what he knows is right is accepted by God. God sent Jesus to preach peace to Israel, anointed Jesus with the Holy Ghost and with power; Jesus went around doing good, healing all oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We saw all these things, and we saw the Jews kill him and hang him on a tree, and we saw how God raised him up and showed him openly to us. We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach that he is the one God appointed and empowered to judge the living and the dead. All the prophets point to him, saying that through his authority, character, and actions, all who entrust themselves to him shall be set free from their sins.”
So to take away from this:
Jesus is our shepherd and we are the sheep. Jesus will find us a place to rest. Jesus will bless us with water, food, safety, home, freedom, fearlessness, and satisfied minds. Jesus expects us to bless others with the same things as much as we can. Jesus expects us to listen and obey; that’s what defines us as his followers. Jesus sends us to find those seeking for God, even among groups we try to stay away from, and Jesus expects us to recognize and affirm God’s work in the seekers’ hearts. And then we can share the good news about Jesus and how we ourselves have found him to be our daily shepherd and teacher. And when, as 1 Peter 5:4 says, the chief Shepherd appears, we will receive a crown of glory that will never fade away. What could be better than that?