This Sunday is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. This celebration is a relatively new addition to the Western liturgical calendar, beginning in 1925, less than 100 years old. Even more recently, 1970, it was moved to this Sunday, the Sunday before Advent.
World War I left many countries in poverty and caused panic among the citizens, who looked to powerful people they thought could solve the problems. So began the rise of populist dictators in Europe. The introduction of Christ the King Sunday was in response to these dictators and their preposterous claims. It was meant to be a reminder that the real ruler of this age is Christ! Not only that but the way Christ rules is in contrast to the populist dictators.
This message is a message that I think the world needs to hear again and critically look at how world leaders are leading in ways contrary with the way of Jesus the Christ and rather are leading like those we read about in this week’s passage from Ezekiel.
Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon from 593 to 571 BCE among Judean exiles. These exiles had witnessed the death of their fellow Judeans and saw their cultural decimated. They themselves were dislocated from their land and way of life, which is an extraordinary stress and heavy burden. We see this same stress and burden on refugees today.
Ezekiel is to serve as a guardian for Judean diaspora community in exile in Babylon. He was tasked to warn them that they will die if they do not turn from their transgression. If he fails, God will hold him personally responsible for the deaths of his fellow Judeans (Ezekiel 3:17-18). The shocking nature of much of Ezekiel’s prophesying reflects the urgency of his task. He is desperate to shake them out of their spiritual complacency.
Ezekiel himself comes close to breaking under the strain of what is required of him, suffering powerful cognitive disruption from his visions. Some of his behaviour may be interpreted as the symptoms of someone who is catatonic ( Ezekiel 3:15, 24-26; 4:4-8). Recent interpreters have suggested it is symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
The reading, Ezekiel 34, begins with roasting accusations against the rulers or leaders, probably the leaders of Israel and Judah as indicated by the phrase “shepherds of Israel” but also possibly the rulers of Babylonia. These leaders are ones “who feed themselves instead of the sheep”.
“You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:3-4)
What we have, then, is a picture of power being exercised for its own benefit. The powerful exercise their power in order to improve their own pasture with no thought for the needs of others. Power benefits the powerful, and this is so much the normal pattern of the way things operate in our society, that we seldom stop to question it.
In contrast we have the image of shepherd which was a metaphor for kingship in ancient Israel and throughout the ancient Near East. In this metaphor we should not just hear nurture but power. The metaphor rightly understood and lived out results in a leader that cares and uses power in ways that are just.
These rulers, shepherds, however, failed to care for the sheep, their people. Instead they fed on the sheep. They have devoured them, consumed them. Exploited and destroyed them for their own selfish gain.
- Where around the world do you see this same kind of leadership?
- Who are the ones being exploited, devoured and consumed?
This is not the way of God. God says:
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34: 10-12).
The corrupt leaders have had many followers and imitators. It is not just the corrupt shepherds that are the problem but also the corrupt or ‘fat sheep-citizens’. Those who not only feed on the good pasture, but also tread down the rest of the pasture. And who, when drinking the clear water, foul the water with their feet. The rest are left to eat and drink what has been trodden and fouled.
The Good Shepherd promises to look for the strayed, bring back the lost, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. God’s rule over the community of faith is full of healing and justice, not exploitative in the way that human power so often is. In fact, God’s nurture involves putting an end to the threat of exploitation and harm. God will protect the people from ‘the fat and the strong’ and promises to feed the flock with justice (Ezekiel 34:16).
God does not just care for the downtrodden but also seeks justice. God promises to judge between those who oppress and those who are oppressed. Ezekiel assures us that God does not punish out of cruelty, unreasonableness, pettiness, or vindictiveness. Justice does, however, mean that God holds bullies accountable. God judges because they have hurt other sheep, and failed in their duty to care for each other.
As Christians we get the care part. We have found countless ways to practice charity through any number of food drives, soup kitchens and mission trips. We do not, however, always deal with the underlying causes of these great needs. Ezekiel holds justice and care together. Real care means seeking justice too. Care and justice are two sides of the one coin. Justice and care belong together as seen in the shepherd metaphor for leaders, rulers or kings. To be a king was to be a shepherd; a king should exercise power as a shepherd. That is, power should not be used for its own sake or build up the self but to support the sheep so the whole flock’s flourishes. What the shepherd metaphor emphasizes, then, is the ruler’s responsibility to establish justice so that the people may flourish. All people, not just those within our national borders.
- Are there systems, policies or leaders in Australia or around the world that you can identify as being unjust, and support some but not all?
- What systems are examples of care for all, especially the poor and most vulnerable?
The importance of tending to individual need, care, and addressing structural concerns, justice, is obvious; it is also pragmatic. If a shepherd/farmer 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. Ezekiel 34 identifies injustice and oppression as a primary cause of the fragmentation of any community, including God’s people and the community of Christ.
As Christians continue to listen to Christ’s call to care for the fragmented and injured individuals, we also need to find ways to address the root causes of what is oppressing, and harming people around the world. Addressing systemic issues around racism, poverty, refugees, housing and health care.
Issues that the Uniting Church are committed to seek justice for include:
- Climate justice,
- Justice for First Nations people (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples)
- Justice for refugees,
- Drug law reform
These are not just political issues. These are issues that impact the people of God and God’s creation. We have a responsibility as Christian people to exercise leadership and call leaders to account in their care for people and creation. Prophets have warned in the past. Christ has shown us The Way. It is now up to us as the Body of Christ and as disciples of Christ to live into The Way.
- Which of these are you willing to support, and how?
- What ways can we tackle issues of injustice that are peaceful and can bring about sustained change?
Rev Tammy Hollands