Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The LORD Is My Shepherd; There Is Nothing I Shall Want.

Wednesday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Ezekiel 34:1-11
The word of the Lord came to me:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts.
My sheep were scattered
and wandered over all the mountains and high hills;
my sheep were scattered over the whole earth,
with no one to look after them or to search for them.

Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD,
because my sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast,
for lack of a shepherd;
because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.

For thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
A powerful passage whose meaning extends far beyond those to whom it was originally addressed. The Jerusalem Bible comments:

The image of the king-shepherd is deeply rooted in Eastern literary tradition. Jeremiah used it of the kings of Israel to rebuke their slackness in office and to proclaim that God would give his people new shepherds who would pasture them with integrity and from these shepherds would come a ‘Branch’, i.e., the Messiah. Ezekiel takes up the theme from Jeremiah, later to be resumed in Zechariah. For their wickedness he rebukes the shepherds, here the kings and lay leaders of the people. Yahweh will take from them the flock they have ill-treated and himself become the shepherd of his people. This is, in effect, the proclamation of a theocracy [as existed before the era of the kings] and, in point of fact, the monarchy was not restored after the return from exile. But the time was to come when Yahweh would give his people a shepherd of his own choice, another David. The terms in which this prince’s reign is described and the name ‘David’ by which he is called suggest a messianic age in which God himself, by means of his Messiah, rules his people in justice and peace.

In this text of Ezekiel we discern the outline of the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) but more especially of the allegory of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18), which by virtue of its original context here is seen to be a claim to messiahship on the part of Jesus. The Good Shepherd is later to become one of the earliest themes of Christian iconography.

Today’s reading confines itself to an attack on the “shepherds” of Israel. Later on, the prophet describes Yahweh himself as a very different kind of shepherd altogether in images which are later taken up by Jesus in the Gospel.

By “shepherds” here the prophet primarily is pointing a finger at the rulers of the people, although prophets and priests are also included. There was no real division between secular and religious rule.

The image of the king as shepherd was common throughout that part of the world. In an earlier chapter, Ezekiel had earlier singled out the princes, priests and prophets for special rebuke (chapter 22). David, of course, had been a shepherd when he was chosen and anointed as king and successor to Saul.

The principal accusation is that the shepherds spend their energies on looking after themselves and neglecting the needs of their sheep. They have enjoyed the milk of the sheep, dressed themselves in their wool and sanctimoniously offered them in religious sacrifices. Per se, of course, sheep are raised precisely for their meat, milk and wool. The crime here is was the mistreatment of their people (their ‘sheep’). The rulers and leaders totally neglected the needs of the sheep. They did not feed them and especially they did nothing to care for the weak and the sick and wounded.

They made no effort go in search of those who had strayed or were lost. “Lost sheep were my people, their shepherds misled them, straggling on the mountains…” says Jeremiah (50:6). In the Gospel Jesus will tell the parable of a God who, as a shepherd, will leave the whole flock and go in search of just one sheep which is lost (Luke 15:4).

Even worse, the sheep were treated with cruelty. The result was that the sheep became scattered far and wide and became the prey of wild animals. This refers to Israel‘s exile and dispersion and their suffering from hostile foreign nations. “No one bothers about them and no one looks for them.”

In view of such a situation, what will the Lord do? He will do two things:

First, he will call his shepherds to account. They pastured themselves but not their sheep so the sheep will be separated from them. They will no longer be shepherds and no longer be in a position to exploit the sheep for their own benefit.

Secondly, God himself will become their shepherd. “I am going to look after my flock myself and keep all of it in view.”

A passage like this gives all of us matter for reflection. It can be applied both to our secular rulers and our religious leaders. In our day there are still too many ‘shepherd-leaders’ who live lives of corrupt luxury while their people wallow in poverty and disease.

In the Church, too, there has been a history of the leadership abusing its position, so that service was replaced by power, simplicity by material comfort, and vocation by privilege. While the more blatant forms of abuse have, thankfully, disappeared there can still be abuse of power and privilege, being served rather than serving.

And to what extent has the leadership in some areas failed to reach out to those on the edge, to those who have scattered and strayed far from the Church? There have been the unfortunate examples of shepherds covering over the wrongdoings of some who were entrusted with shepherding.

We might also ask what proportion of the Church’s energies and concerns are concentrated on the already converted, on maintenance rather than on mission? Here we can include not only bishops, priests and religious but all Christians who regard themselves as “practising”.

‘Shepherding’ is the responsibility of all who are entrusted with the care of others - parents, teachers, medical personnel, social workers… Most of us, in one way or another.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness will follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
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Matthew 20:1-16
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
he found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening
the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
"Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came,
they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Today we have another parable of the Kingdom. And it is not unrelated to the previous story of the rich man. At a first reading we might be strongly inclined to side with the grumblers in the parable. After all, it did not seem at all fair that those who only worked for one hour should get exactly the same as those who had worked from early in the morning and through the heat of the day.

Even though all had agreed to work for a stipulated amount, still in all fairness and decency, one feels that the early comers should have been given more or the latecomers less. However, if we find ourselves talking like this then it shows that our thoughts are human thoughts and not God’s. A little further reflection will make us feel grateful that God works like the employer in the vineyard.

The story seems, as often happens in the Gospel, to reflect the situation of the early Church. The first Christians were all Jews. Before their conversion they had been trying to live according to the requirements of their Jewish faith. They belonged to a people who had thousands of years of religious history, they were God’s own people. Then Gentiles began to be admitted into the community. Some of these people probably came from totally pagan environments. They may have lived very immoral lives and yet, once accepted and baptised, they enjoyed all the privileges of the community. Somehow, it did not seem right.

But this is the justice of God which we need to learn. He gives his love, all of his love, to every person without exception who opens himself to it. It does not matter whether that happens early or late. One reason for that is that that love can never be earned, only accepted. And, as the previous story indicated, the genuine needs of all should be met. The fact that the latecomers were only employed at the last hour does not make their needs any less than those who came earlier. God’s justice is measured by our needs not by mathematical divisions.

What each of the workers received was a symbol of the love of God, who is the vineyard owner. All - early arrivals and latecomers - got exactly the same, the love of their Master and Lord. There are not various degrees of that love. It is always 100 percent. God is Love; he cannot not love and he cannot not love totally. He cannot and will not give more of that love to one than another.

This is indeed something we should be grateful for. Because it can happen - perhaps it has already happened - that I move away from God and his love. I may move very far. But I know that at whatever time I turn back to him, be it at the 11th hour, he is waiting with open arms.

Thank heavens for the justice of God!*

The Irish Jesuits


Sarah in the tent said...

'You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,'

This list of failings in the leaders of Israel seems rather unfair. These had never been the tasks of a king at that time. A king's main job has always been the defence of the realm, a task not even mentioned here. This list sounds more like a modern welfare state! The prophet's idea of statehood is, I think, very much before his time - prophetic!

Yesterday's Gospel reading describes the special 'reward' of twelve thrones for the Apostles who first followed Jesus and ends: 'But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'

Today's reading seems to clarify this final warning, ending: 'Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.' If we are envious, there is a risk the landlord might simply say to us: 'Take what is yours and go.'

Some of the Apostles were occasionally concerned with status, even among themselves, so perhaps they needed this warning! Might an Apostle have envied an Evangelist, or vice versa? This is starting to sound like an argument over parts in a nativity play ...

Anonymous said...

Fairness, justice...these can only be revealed when boundaries are crossed. This land owner went beyond the boundaries of fairness and justice to reveal his mercy and compassion. Exactly what God does time and time again and it's exactly what we fail to do time and time again.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Jesus teaches us that the precepts of the Decalogue are summed up in the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your mind, and heart and might, and love your neighbor as yourself."

But, as you say, we fail to do that time and time again, and yet the Father continues to reveal His mercy and compassion, until the moment when the He will exercise divine justice, since we have expired our last breath of air.

Eternal Father, for the sake of the Sorrowful Passion of your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and on the whole world.