Woe to the Shepherds

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Good morning.

The series of text that have been read this morning from the lectionary are in many ways remarkable. My guess is that there are a number of political leaders throughout the world who are not enjoying the lectionary readings today. Given what a sharp judgment they offer on Israel’s leaders and ask us to consider it as we grapple with leadership in the modern world. It’s a remarkable collection of texts.

In Mark 6, the text that was just read, Jesus sees a chaotic crowd of people and imagines them to be like sheep without a shepherd. This taps a very very long tradition in Israel’s scriptures where Israel time and time again is scattered lacking a shepherd. The text I read to you early from Jeremiah is the text from which this sermon’s title comes, “Woe to the shepherds,” the first four words from Jeremiah 23:1-6, “Woe to the shepherd who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture says the lord.” These shepherds are the Kings of Israel, and Jeremiah is following the fall of Judea and the exile of God’s people to Babylon. Ezekiel presents the same sort of critique in Ezekial 34, even harsher. You’ll recall that this is not a new theme in the biblical text. Beginning with Jeremiah or Ezekiel as a matter of fact, even a casual reading of first and second Samuel and first and second Kings should remind you that these lengthy narratives are by in large a judgment on the failure of Israel’s monarchies. Over and over again, we are told of a failed reign, followed by a failed reign, followed by a failed reign. The political disaster that was the monarchy in narrative form is judged as a moral and religious failure and hence ultimately a political failure.

The story continues as we are in an apocalyptic series this summer and you might recall this is rather a large theme in apocalyptic literature as well, if I might trace it down briefly. What we have is the fall of Judea the Southern Kingdom, and five, maybe six, of the Babylonians in exile and Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer their judgment on the shepherds of Israel. Following that exile there’s a return to the land and rebuilding of the temple. Ultimately the land falls under the control of the Talamies and the Salutes. Following Alexander the Great’s campaign in the east, there is a revolt against Salute rulers that we know of as the Maccabean Revolt, where new shepherds were put in power–followers of the Maccabees, the Hasmoaneans. But things go no better, as a matter of fact, after decades of Hasmoanean rule, where Israel is being ruled by its own Kings again, it’s almost as if it’s a relief when the Romans come to town. Oh and then we have the Romans and by now the misery of failed leadership takes on cosmic proportions. Its not just as if a king looks after the king’s own interest rather than the interest of the people, it’s not just that the game is rigged among political insiders. Oh it’s worse. In an apocalyptic world view, the game is rigged in cosmic proportions, where the rulers are not simply rulers living out their own excesses and greed, but they are the puppets and the pawns of dark spiritual powers. If you’ve worked your way through the Book of Revelations, the Apocalypse of St. John, you’ve read the story told in violent and brilliant color. As the Roman Empire is held up for judgment and its shepherds are accused. The beast from the sea, is the Roman Emperors and the power of the Roman Empire comes from Satan himself, that’s the apocalyptic tale of Revelation 12 and 13. It’s a dark story. If you’ve read much political history, it’s a dark story.

The revised common lectionary encourages us to read Psalm 23 in dialogue with Jeremiah 23. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. We just worked our way through Psalm 23. In Psalm 23 we imagine that it is God who is the ruler, God is the shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest  my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever

It’s the universal longing of humanity, the universal longing, to be led to green pastures, for our cups to overflow, for goodness and mercy to follow us. It’s the path that Israel’s Kings were to lead Israel on, but far too often it was not the path that had been promised. The experience of failed leadership is an experience of terrific suffering, of victimized populations, of barrenness. You see if the 23 Psalm if its read in reverse it’s the opposite of the yearning of God and God’s people.

Bashar Al-Asad is my shepherd, I shall always want. He makes me lie down in barren pastures:  he leads me beside dry riverbeds, he destroys my soul, he leads me in the wrong path for his own sake.

You see Psalm 23 is not just that little pastoral text we learn to recite when we were children in church; it is a powerful statement about what the right leadership offers and should do for people. And hence the failed kings of Israel and the failed kings of today, whether in the Middle East and Syria in the case of Assad or in this country, results in people being led to barren pastures. One of the most pronounced themes in all of scripture is the theme we are talking about this morning. And we continue to be haunted by poor leadership; we continue to be haunted by barren rather than green pastures. It’s an old story.  The apocalyptic tradition is so pessimistic it loses hope that this can be righted. That it can be righted in the space of human history and imagined that God has to right it at the end of human history, God has to make it right in the end, that is the message of the Book of Revelations isn’t it. It’s not my desire this morning to encourage us to that level of pessimism, but even from this story to gain some hope, to work for greener pastures, to work for still waters, for goodness and mercy to follow us as opposed to judgment and wrath. But, it’s a hard path and we are foolish not to have our eyes wide open.

For the past 36 hours I have found myself wondering time and again why I agreed to preach this weekend, especially after the horror of Aurora, Colorado raised its head. A story I’m sure you know by now. A 24 year old neuroscience PhD student walks into a midnight showing of the latest of Chirstopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy movies, with four guns: two glock 40mms and an AR-15 assault rifle and a 12- gauge shotgun. He walks into that theater in battle armor from head to foot; his assault rifle has a drum magazine that holds 100 rounds. He bought all of this legally, within the last 60 days. He shot 70 people. The Washington Post reports this morning that apparently the assault rifle jammed so that all 100 rounds were not able to be dispersed. Now, I understand we have a gun debate in this country, I know something about the gun lobby, I grew up hunting on a farm in Alabama. Whether or not Mr. Holmes should have been able to purchase those four weapons, I’ll leave open for a moment, but I want to suggest to you that he should not be able to purchase a magazine that holds 100 rounds. It’s illegal in the state of Massachusetts but it’s legal in every other state but eight. The gun debate in this country is a failed conversation. More should be done to protect the sheep.

May it be so.


~Dr. James Christopher Walters

Associate Professor of New Testament,

Boston University

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