Psalm 23 begins with Ezekiel


Any talk about God’s people, and shepherds, cannot begin with the 23rd Psalm – it simply can’t.  The conversation must instead begin with Ezekiel 34:1-31:

“Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them… 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.  So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd… with no one to search or seek for them…. For thus says the Lord God: 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… and will bring them into their own land… and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel… I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…  They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people… You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God.”

Here the prophet contrasts a bad shepherd with a good shepherd.  Notice, there is no praising the ability of the shepherd to bend the will of the sheep to theirs.  This is not an image of mindless obedience, or of corralling animals into pens.  This is quite wonderfully about the care and nurture that a shepherd shows for those under their care: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” 

There is intimacy and protection in this imagery: this is God responding with love to human longing.  This is typical of the “I am” (Ego eimi) sayings in John’s Gospel, each of which provide care or sustenance: Bread (6:35), Life (11:25), Light (9:5), Truth (14:6), The Way (14:6), The Gate (vs. 9), and The Good Shepherd (vs. 10, 11).  This is not a remote transcendent God, but rather an up-close-and-personal God (immanent).  This is a God active in the muck and filth of the sheepfold (life).  This is a God who searches us out and comes to us where we are.  No matter how hard we try to flee from God’s presence, God comes to us (as Psalm 139 describes) even if we flee into Sheol – even if we find ourselves in Hell! (Psalm 139:8).  The wonderous thing is of course, that God comes to us not to judge, but to save.  As Ann Lamott puts it:

“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” 

Seeking the lost and returning them to the community (forgiveness, mercy); tending to the hungry (works of love) and leading them to rich pasture (eternal life); lifting up the broken, and making them whole (restoration) – this is the work of the Good Shepherd.  

It is no coincidence that this text follows immediately upon the story of the bind man whose sight Jesus restored (John 9).  The man praised Jesus as Lord; while the religious authorities could only condemn Jesus for having healed on the Sabbath.  The blind man could see: the Pharisees (bad shepherds) were blind to faith. 

The bad shepherds come only to steal and to kill – literally “slaughter” (thyein) like the priest slaughtering the offering.  They are bandits (lēstēs) like Barabbas and the other messianic revolutionaries.  But the Good Shepherd brings life – abundant life.  True, we recalcitrant creatures often need a wee bit of “gentle” persuasion.  The phrase “when he has brought out his own” (vs. 4) actually has at its core the word ekballein, which means “cast or pushed out” (sheep can be a bit stubborn!).  C. S. Lewis describes his conversion to Christianity in a similar manner, describing himself as “The most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape” (Surprised by Joy).   Sounds like the way in which many of us will enter the Kingdom!

We may look quite a sight when we enter the kingdom.  After all, the Christian life (like that of the Good Shepherd’s) is not pretty: it is lived out in sacrificial love – strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed, seeking the lost – and such a life takes its toll.  But I recall a poem given to me twenty years ago by a friend who served as a chaplain in Illinois, and it remains close to my heart today (especially today):

“I would rather clutch my invitation and wait my turn
in party clothes – prim and proper, safe and clean.
But… a pulsing hand keeps driving me over peaks ravines and spidered brambles
So I will pant up to the pearled knocker tattered, breathless, and full of tales”  

(Full of Tales, by Janet Chester-Bly).
John 10:1-10 (Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25)