The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake…
This favourite psalm which will be read in churches across the world this week, offers a way into one of the collision points between governments and churches, and the arguments about religion and politics. The shepherd was a common image for rulers and leaders in the ancient world; the shepherds of the time walked in front of their flocks to lead the sheep to safe pastures.
God had issues with the shepherds of Israel; that is, the kings and the other leaders of the nation. In the midst of his complaints about Israel, Ezekiel says in Chapter 34:
The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand…
And that’s about half of the complaint!
Scripture makes absolutely no division between religion and politics. In the eyes of scripture, the politicians are subject to God. And politicians have always resented God’s intrusion into their affairs, not to mention the dictators! A church which seeks to be faithful to its tradition— faithful to Jesus, the old words say— will always feel some tension with the state because Jesus claims to be the Good Shepherd, in stark contrast to the leaders of Israel. (John 10:11) Jesus is the measure of those in power. That claim has never lapsed.
In Ezekiel’s words it sounds like this:
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
In Jesus’ words it sounds like this:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself… (Mark 12:31)
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd…. (John 10)
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25)
He will not be a shepherd relegated to readings for funerals, or to sentimentality. His teaching, even though always needing to be interpreted in the complexity of everyday life, goes the heart of how we live as a society.