A group of Americans were on a tour of Israel and as they travelled through the countryside they passed a large herd of sheep. The shepherd was out front and the sheep were following. The guide explained to the tourists that the shepherd did not follow the sheep, pushing them along, but instead led them and they followed the sound of his voice. As Jesus said, “The sheep hear [the shepherd’s] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
There were some in the tour group who doubted this and snickered and they believed their doubts were confirmed when a short time later they saw a man behind a herd of sheep pushing them along by poking and prodding them with a stick. One of the tourist called out to the guide, “I thought you said the shepherds here always lead the sheep. Why is that man walking behind and driving them forward?” The guide looked over to see what was taking place, then answered, “That man isn’t the shepherd. He’s the butcher.”
We know that the Judges, like Deborah and Gideon, ruled over Israel prior to the kings, and we know that one day the people came to the Prophet Samuel and said, “We want a king like everybody else.” It was then that Samuel said, “You don’t really want one, but if you insist…,” but before giving them the king, he warned them why it was a bad idea: the king will take your sons and daughters from you to serve him, he’ll take the best of everything you have and then some, he’ll send you off to die in wars, it’ll be a real mess, but the people persisted and God gave them what they asked for.
The first king was Saul. Saul was a bit on the crazy side and that didn’t work out so well. When Saul died, the people came to David—as in David and Goliath—and proposed to make him their king. They said to him, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’” You shall be shepherd / prince, you shall be king. This is the first time in scripture that the word shepherd was used as a way of referring to the king, but it is one that endured throughout.
David was better at the job than Saul, but he wasn’t without his faults. Following him were both good and bad kings, but ultimately, after roughly 500 years, it declined to such a state that God was infuriated, so he called on the Prophet Ezekiel to prophesy against the kings, against the shepherds: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Everything Samuel said the kings would do, they did. The people were lost and scattered and sent into exile. The kings were not the shepherds of the people, leading them along with their voice and their words. The kings were the butchers, poking and prodding the people and leading them to their deaths.
However, the Lord may punish the shepherds, but he had no plans to forsake his people, the sheep, for he also said through Ezekiel, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out… I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed 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, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
In those words, did you hear Psalm 23?
The Lord is my shepherd…
He makes me lie down in green pastures…
[He] guides me along right pathways…
[He spreads] a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me…
In those words, did you hear the feeding of the 5,000, when with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Jesus fed the multitude?
In those words of Ezekiel, did you hear Jesus saying, I will “bind up the brokenhearted” and “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Today, in our Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Today, in our Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the good King. The King lays down his life for his people.” By his life and death, Jesus fulfilled Ezekiel’s prophecy and became the true shepherd and our King.
Today, we have many shepherd kings that surround us. Some are actual leaders in various capacities, but they also come in other forms. These may be our goals and ambitions, whether they be for our health or wealth or jobs, and still others might be for recognition or perfection in some area. They are people and aspects of our lives that seek to guide and, in some cases, control us. This does not make them bad, per se, but whatever they might be, we should examine them and ask ourselves, “In pursuing _, am I hearing and following the voice of the Good Shepherd King or am I being deceived and being poked and prodded along by the butcher?” Ask yourself that question and also see where it leads you. Through your involvement, are you experiencing the promises of God? Put into the words of our readings today: do you experience the green pastures and still waters or does it bring hardship and pain? Ask yourself those questions and put those parts of your life to the test. In doing so, you will either discover the Good Shepherd King leading you or the butcher that should be removed from your life.
The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my King. In all things, allow his leading voice to be what rules in your life.
Let us pray: Sovereign God, ruler of all creation, you sent Jesus to testify to the truth: that you alone are the Lord of life. Help us to listen always to his voice so that we may proclaim his realm of justice, peace, and endless love; through Christ, who reigns forever. Amen.