The use of the shepherd metaphor for God is rooted in the common historical and geographic practice of referring to the political leader as ‘the shepherd.‘ This metaphor cuts both ways as today’s verse shows. The leader is called to be a good shepherd by living in covenant and God with the people he leads and by ensuring that the covenant is upheld. A major portion of this covenant is the practice of Jubilee, the care for the poor, the establishment and maintenance of just social and economic practices and the hospitality of strangers and foreigners. When leaders failed to keep covenant and establish justice for the poor and vulnerable, they were not being good shepherds, and they flirted with and incurred God’s righteous anger.
This is the case in today’s reading. The leaders are not caring for the sheep, the common people, but using them for food, which is to say, using them for their own profit. In an interesting and disturbing illustration of how relevant the bible is today a recent Economic Policy Institute report states, The top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share—36 percent. In comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90 percent. The patterns are similar for wages and capital income. But that is another sermon.
In regards to this week, Ezekiel 34 offers us the chance to imagine God the Shepherd, creating justice. This is a story about God rescuing the poor and vulnerable from the powerful. This is an image of God bringing support and relief for those who face challenge after challenge and who feel that life is nothing but struggle.
As we said yesterday, it is difficult to imagine justice, especially with news such as I shared above. But the first step toward creating justice is being able to imagine it, to dream of it. Imagination and dreaming leads to hope and planning. It energizes us and stirs within us creative possibilities. Ezekiel also reminds us that when we imagine, hope and then act in just ways, that we will receive an empowerment beyond our own strength, a fortitude beyond our own will.
Today’s treatment of Ezekiel reminds us to be in prayer for all those in need of rescue, especially due to the exploitative and coercive actions of others. But it also encourages us to prayerfully imagine God’s rescue for us, from our own struggles. Offer your trials in prayer and imagine God’s rescue.