Christ the King – Putting the Needs of the Flock First

The Seven Works of Mercy, Caravaggio, 1607, Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples
(About this image)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Solemnity of Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11–12, 15–17
November 22, 2020

Our reading this week is from the Prophet Ezekiel who uses a most intimate image of the relationship between the LORD and his people: the shepherd. It is found often throughout the Ancient Near East, but Ezekiel gives it a particular spin. To understand why, we need to look at Ezekiel’s life and times.  

Ezekiel was born about 622 BC in Jerusalem and died about 570 BC in Babylon. The dates and places tell his story. Jerusalem was situated on the trade route between Egypt to the south and whatever power was dominating the north. Never a mighty empire, the Jews were able to play one power off against the other to maintain significant independence for over three centuries.

Ezekiel lived at the time when this ended. In 609 BC, they thought that the neo-Babylonian empire was ascendant and allied themselves with it. By 597 BC, the leadership felt that it was weakening, and they could assert more independence. This was a grave miscalculation and the Babylonians invaded, conquered Jerusalem and took many Jewish leaders into captivity. Ezekiel was one of these and he spent the rest of his life in Babylon.

In 586 BC, there was another rebellion which resulted in the destruction of the city and the Temple and the exile of the remaining leaders of the people, especially the royal court, the scribes, and the priests. Without the Temple, how could the Covenant be maintained and without the monarchy how could the promise to David be fulfilled? All that could be seen was devastation.

While in exile, Ezekiel received a blinding vision of the LORD who sent him to his people to tell them that they were being punished for disobedience—straying from God—but that they would be restored. The image of the shepherd was perfectly fitted to expressing this message.

The shepherd emphasized that the king was to be a protector. He was to protect his people from natural predators by keeping them together. As the passage before the one we read today shows the kings and other leaders of the people failed in both respects.

They were scattered for lack of a shepherd,
and became food for all the wild beasts.

(Eze 34:5)

Because of this:

My sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food
for every wild beast, for lack of a shepherd

(Eze 34:8a)

The reason was simple and clear:

Because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;

(Eze 34:8c)

They put their own interests ahead of their responsibilities

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.

(Eze 34:3–4)

Ezekiel’s passion is understandable. He is now in exile “a stranger in a strange land” because the shepherds did not do their jobs. His call from God was to tell the Jewish people that God had not abandoned them indeed he himself will save them:

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

(Eze 34:10)

Not only will the people be freed from oppression in Babylon, but they will be given true shepherding by their own leaders. The LORD Himself will restore the balance.

First, we are told that the LORD himself “will look after and tend my sheep.” (Eze 34:11) But he will also search out the sheep who were lost. That is what the people from the Northern Kingdom often called the lost 10 tribes.

I will lead them out from among the peoples and
gather them from the foreign lands;
I will bring them back to their own country and
pasture them upon the mountains of Israel
in the land’s ravines and all its inhabited places.

(Eze 34:13)

This will be “on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing ground” (Eze 34:14b). The LORD will truly restore all the Jews to their patrimony in Israel. This however does not include the shepherds who ate their fill while the people starved:

The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal
(but the sleek and the strong I will destroy),
shepherding them rightly.

(Eze 34:16)

He will thus judge between the “rams and the goats” between oppressor and oppressed.

Our passage today ends with this but to understand more fully the LORD’S intent we must read further.

I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them,
my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd.
I, the LORD, will be their God, and
my servant David shall be prince among them.
I, the LORD, have spoken

(Eze 34:23–24)

When they are restored, they will have a leader who will be just because he follows the LORD as did David. Note, however, that David is called a Prince; only the LORD is truly king.

That has not changed. Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. It sounds ancient but dates only to 1925. It was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI after the First World War. He saw that empires were overthrown and that even the few kings that we left were mostly ceremonial. Other forces now claimed to guide and lead the people. He is also the pope that issued a stunning and negative reappraisal of capitalism (Quadragesimo anno, 1931) and a condemnation of Nazism. He was not subtle; he wrote it in German: “Mit brennender Sorge” (“With grave concern” 1937)

We can perhaps find echoes of this recognition of poor shepherds in Pope Francis encyclicals as well. A shepherd who does not put the needs of the sheep ahead of his or her own desires can lead only to destruction. Only when our leaders in church and state are committed to the common good will the weak be strengthened, the sick be healed, and the wounds of the injured be bound up.