Commentary on Ezek 34:1-11
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” (edited).
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 (chap. 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.