If God were to make a diet pill, what would it be like? What would it do? That might seem like a peculiar question to pose — and it might well be influenced by having recently watched a certain Doctor Who episode with my daughter — but it actually goes to the heart of this week’s readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel.
There is, after all, a lot about feeding in chapter 34 of Ezekiel. The passage we heard comes from a speech that begins by castigating the leaders of Israel and Judah for looking after themselves rather than the people:
‘Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you 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 fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.’ (34: 2–5)
In the section that was read to us, God speaks of how this situation will be overturned. It’s a picture of abundance and restoration. None other than God will gather up the scattered sheep of Israel. God will feed the flock, providing the sheep with ‘good pasture […] good grazing land [and] rich pasture’, bringing back the lost, healing the injured and strengthening the weak (34:14, 16). In other words, God will do exactly what the ‘shepherds of Israel’ neglected to do:
‘You 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.’ (34:4)
We might anticipate some poetic justice here: we might expect God to leave the neglectful shepherds to the wild animals that fed on the scattered sheep. Instead, they are to be fed too. They are depicted as themselves being among the flock, pushing and butting at the weaker sheep (34:21), oppressing the poor and needy. But the whole flock will be fed. So God will not neglect these unruly, domineering sheep as they neglected the people. But there is a sting in the tail, for these, ‘the fat and the strong’, will be fed ‘with justice’ (34:16).
Ezekiel doesn’t specify what it means for them to be fed with justice, but it certainly isn’t comfortable, for God proclaims their destruction (34:16). Certainly, their status and authority are stripped from them and given to another: God not only asserts ‘I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep’ but says ‘I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David’ (34:15, 23). One shepherd rather than many. One shepherd who will care. One shepherd with a divine mandate to feed and lead.
Here, then, is an answer to the question with which we began: God’s diet pill is care and justice — care for the weak and broken and lost; justice for the oppressed and judgment on the oppressor. Care that sustains and builds up; justice and judgment that restore the balance within the community. It is a diet that thins down those who have overstuffed themselves at others’ expense and fattens up those who’ve been left with nothing to eat.
Judgment is a topic we tend to shy away from, but neither Ezekiel nor the Gospel reading let us avoid it. If we don’t find ourselves shuffling uncomfortably in our seats as we hear these texts, I wonder whether we are hearing their full impact. You might or might not be a leader but we are citizens of one of the richest countries in the world and we all have power to reinforce or resist oppression of others through the choices that we make at the ballot box, in our bank balances, in our behaviour.
Matthew’s Gospel brings this home to us vividly. What divides the sheep from the goats here is not their doctrinal statements, the way they worship God or whom they proclaim as Lord. It isn’t even, at the heart of it, their actions in themselves. It is whether they act towards others out of mercy, whether they demonstrate genuine care. The ones who do so are not driven by the fear of judgment but by a genuine desire to feed the hungry, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and care for the prisoner. They use their time and resources to exercise mercy because that’s who they are. The last thing they are is calculating, so they are shocked to find out that, no matter to whom they showed mercy, they showed it Christ — Christ, who is here designated king in a very similar way to the David figure in Ezekiel but is also occupying the divine judgment seat.
There is undeniably something of the sheep and the goat about each of us. And that is perhaps inevitable, because none of us can address all the injustices in the world. But neither does Scripture permit us just to ignore them all and pass by. We might be tempted to take from the Gospel reading the sense that alleviating immediate need is enough. But Ezekiel makes it clear that God is interested in restoring the balance, that is, in structural change.
Structural change is hard, not least because it often demands that we have to give something up, whether wealth, time, status or attitudes. But this is precisely the kind of service that the Lord requires of us. Ezekiel gave us a picture of corrupt shepherds whom God made into sheep; in Matthew, we have an image of the Good Shepherd who makes himself into a sheep, who is found among the sheep. This is the kind of king Christ is; this is the king whom we serve: one who not only gets his hands dirty but becomes one of the dirty, one with the dirty.
Our service to this hidden king must begin with us asking ourselves the difficult questions these texts leave hanging in the air:
- Whom do our actions and choices oppress?
- Whom do we silence, push to the edge and exclude?
- Whose plight do we ignore?
- Do even our acts of charity end up having any of these effects?
- Is there something more or something different we should be doing?
- How can we challenge and even reshape the unjust structures around us?
These are questions we need to keep coming back to as individuals and as a community, letting them sit in judgment on us so that we might experience the restoration that will enable us to take our full part in Christ’s restoration of justice, mercy and healing.
Reflect on the questions posed at the end of the sermon.