St Stephen Lutheran Church – Pastor Maurice Frontz
Christ the King - 11/23/2014
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
It’s an unusual metaphor for kingship,
this image of the shepherd.
It is a rural image, far removed from the royal court,
from the realms of chariots and horses,
spears and soldiers,
thrones and crowns and due obeisance.
Alone, on the hillside,
the shepherd and the sheep dwell in seeming tranquility.
guiding them in pleasant pathways,
to places of good grazing and plenty of water to drink.
All is at peace,
the sheep graze contentedly,
the shepherd peacefully watches over them,
without worry, without hurry.
And yet, when wolves attack, when sheep stray into places of danger,
the shepherd’s crook strikes in anger or reproof.
The shepherd is not mild-mannered then,
but for the sake of the flock he rouses himself
to deal with those who would destroy the sheep.
David, the king of Israel,
came from a family of sheepherders,
and Israel itself was a family of sheepherders in Egypt.
And so it was Israel who envisioned both their king and their God
as a shepherd;
whose holy writings were full of stories and poems
of the pasture,
and of the mother sheep and the tender lambs.
‘Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
and kneel before the LORD our maker;
for he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture
and the sheep of his hand.’
But the pasture is not always a pleasant place.
As the prophet Ezekiel remembered the sheepfolds of Judah
from his exile in faraway Babylon,
it was not simply the comforting images
which came to mind.
As he thought of the injustice and the lack of community
among his people
what came to mind were memories of conflict in the sheepfold.
Young lambs and old rams and ewes
in competition for scarce resources;
The strong becoming stronger;
the weak shunted aside,
the fat growing fatter and the lean growing leaner,
the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
How very similar,
this sheepherding people and their sheep!
Quick to stray, slow to hear,
and battling for survival within the flock.
And so it is that Ezekiel speaks in God’s name
and with his wisdom and authority,
proclaiming that the shepherd who comes to shepherd God’s people Israel
shall not simply defend the people from external enemies
but from internal enemies as well.
He shall divide sheep from sheep.
The stronger who shouldered aside the weaker
will be judged for their lack of compassion,
and the weak who are in need,
they who are hungry and thirsty,
will be fed and protected and sheltered.
Survival of the fittest may be necessary
and even unavoidable in the field,
but the human community,
the community of God’s people,
is not to be marked by the competition of strong and weak.
When weak die for lack,
it is the community that dies.
How strange and how counterintuitive.
In that day and in this day!
Perhaps 2,500 years after the prophet Ezekiel wrote these words,
the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben entered the German lexicon:
‘Life unworthy of life.’
Although the phrase is German and was used by those who engineered the Holocaust
to first forcibly sterilize and then simply murder
those whom they considered ‘inferior,’
it should be recalled that eugenic and racial theory was widespread in the world
of the early twentieth century
and even today various methods of eugenics
are advocated by some.
It is intuitive to suggest that the strong should be favored
and the weak disenfranchised,
so that a stronger community might evolve.
But perhaps it is more within the understanding of Ezekiel’s vision
to simply speak of how we as individual human beings look at life.
Is life a violent competition at a feeding trough,
or is it a table with enough for all?
Are we trying to get ahead in life,
in terms of accomplishments or possessions,
or do we consider our greatest accomplishments and possessions
the quality of our relationships?
Are we aware or unaware
that each person has been created
in God’s own image,
and that image remains,
no matter how far that person has fallen from that image,
no matter how unlikely it is that the human is the bearer of the divine?
Where Ezekiel divides people as sheep from sheep,
Jesus divides them as sheep and goats.
The division only happens when the shepherd comes on the scene.
Until then, the flock is mixed.
What has happened?
It is simply that the ones on the right,
the ones who not only will be in eternal life,
but are already in eternal life,
are the ones who ‘see.’
They see that every human being bears the image of the Creator,
they see that each human being in need is a call from the Creator,
and then they act as they have opportunity.
They are the ones who act as shepherds
in the Name of the shepherd.
What about the ones on the left?
They will go from punishment to punishment;
because the life they have lived is punishment itself.
It is a living death
not to see the life of God in people,
to see them as obstacles or nuisances or Lebensunwertes Leben.
It is living death
to constantly be weighing people’s worthiness in your mind,
to view life as a struggle for scarce resources
rather than as a banquet with enough for all.
These are the sheep who push with flank and shoulder
and butt at all the weak animals with their horns.
And the shepherd will deliver the weak ones from them.
Listen to what Ezekiel says:
‘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
on a day of clouds and thick darkness…
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,
and will make them lie down,
says the LORD God.
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,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.