“A True Bishop of Souls” (Ezekiel 34:11-24)
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 15, 2019)
In our Gospel reading today we hear the spiritual leaders of Israel grumble about Jesus. And of all things they express their disdain for Him because He is doing something they, even in their weakest moments, would never consider doing. Jesus was warmly welcoming public sinners to His side and even dining with them. Can you imagine such a thing!
On the other hand, in our Epistle lesson we hear the apostle Paul praise God for so mercifully appointing him to the task of preaching His Word and leading God’s people in the way of His truth. What so astounded Paul about this was that he had been a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. Paul freely confesses that he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor of the church, and even, an insolent opponent of Christ. Now, those are some pretty impressive credentials for a Christian preacher, don’t you think? Yikes! And that is exactly why Paul is full of praise to God. His every word drips with a genuine humility and utter amazement of the grace of God that the LORD would appoint him, this disgusting enemy of Christ, to be His very apostle to lead others to Christ. It’s almost unbelievable , right? And yet, that’s exactly what God had done in calling Paul. He was sending a most public and notorious sinner to bring other sinners to Jesus. That same Jesus Who does what? That’s right: the same Jesus who receives and eats with sinners!
There cannot be two attitudes that are more polar opposites! One, that of the Pharisees, is shaped by self-righteousness and the other, that of Paul, flows from a humble heart of repentance and utter appreciation for the mercy and grace of God toward the undeserving, the sinners. Which attitude would you prefer that your spiritual leader had? Which of these contrasting spiritual leaders do you think would have the compassion to really care about you and the eternal welfare of your body and soul?
What truly undergirds all three of our appointed texts for this Sunday is God’s true model for a spiritual leader for His people. That model is of all things a shepherd, a shepherd of sheep. Of course, in our Gospel lesson the Pharisees and Scribes who were legitimately holding the office of spiritual leader of God’s people, show their utter contempt for such a model. A shepherd is the last thing they would imagine their role was to be. They loathed the profession of shepherding. As far as they were concerned, shepherds were smelly, uneducated, and among the worst of the undesirables of society. They did not want in any way, even if it were just metaphorically, to be associated with the role of a shepherd? On the other hand, Law giver, moral judge of others, now, that was more what they aspired to and considered themselves to be. By sharp contrast, in our Epistle the apostle Paul embraces the shepherd model in all awe and humility of faith.
And then there is our Old Testament text from Ezekiel, coming as it does on the very heels of the LORD’s harsh sounding words chastening the spiritual leaders of Judah for not being true shepherds of His sheep. We will focus our attention on these words for in them we hear the comforting and assuring promise of the LORD God that He, Himself, will come and be a true and good shepherd of His people.
You’ve all heard the expression: “You should never send a boy to do a man’s job.” The so called spiritual leaders of Israel had proven through their abuse of their God-given responsibilities and their self-centeredness, that the LORD God could not send them to do the very important job of being a shepherd of souls. In fact, through Ezekiel we hear the LORD say in no uncertain terms, “I truly cannot count on you! I will be that Shepherd of souls.” At least, four times in these 13 verses the LORD then emphasizes, “I myself will shepherd my people.”
This promise, as I mentioned, comes in the context of the LORD’s ire against the spiritual leaders of Judah, who were not being true shepherds of His people. The LORD was telling them that He was going to remove them from their positions and discipline them severely for their unfaithfulness.
You see, these spiritual leaders, like their descendants, the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day, were not demonstrating that they had any care whatsoever about the real and eternal welfare of those they had been entrusted. They didn’t really pay attention to or even care whether the sheep of the flock were healthy in body or soul. As long as the people were continuing to pay their temple tax, which supported the leaders, and obeyed the laws their leaders laid down, then that was good enough. Whether the people were remaining in true faith and in sincere worship of the LORD was of little concern to them. It was all about them and their own physical welfare. It was definitely not about the temporal or eternal welfare the people’s souls, and I might add, or even about the LORD’s will for all of them.
Accordingly, through His prophet Ezekiel, the LORD God said to them: “Ah, 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 fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My 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 none to search or seek for them” (Ezek 34:2-6).
Two important terms are used in this text which are also used in the New Testament to speak of the public office of ministry. The principle one, of course, is “shepherd.” Both the Hebrew word here, as well as its New Testament Greek counterpart, refer to that person who feeds, tends, and leads animals, especially sheep. We often use the term “pastor,” from the Latin word “to shepherd.” A pastor, therefore, is a person who feeds, tends and leads the people of God.
The other term that is also used several times here for this caretaker of sheep is most literally translated into English as “overseer.” Another English word is often used in its place, however. That is the word “bishop.” A bishop, then, rightly defined is an “overseer.” But unlike how the word bishop is frequently employed today as someone placed in authority over others, like a boss or supervisor, the bishop, or overseer, that is a shepherd has to do with the original word’s intent as someone who carefully looks over, or examines, the condition of the sheep. He seeks to find out if the sheep are healthy? Are they suffering? Are they hurt in any way? Are they safe in the flock or in danger because they are lost in the wilderness? The good shepherd is a good overseer. He examines carefully what the sheep need and seeks to provide it. His concern and care are for the sheep not his own personal needs or comfort.
Here in lies the wonderful comfort of this text. The LORD God is promising those abused by faulty and unfaithful shepherds that He Himself will come among His people and be a true Bishop (Overseer) their souls. He will be exactly for them what their spiritual leaders have not been!
Just soak in the import of these words for you: “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out (examines) his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares 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, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (vs. 6-14).
Wow! And many in our world seek to make God out to be so impersonal, aloof, and unconcerned about what happens on our planet, let alone what is going on in our hearts and lives! Nothing could be farther from the truth. God insists that He Himself will come among you, His sheep, really look over what you need, and then in His concern for you provide the food, healing and rescue you need.
You and I, living in the age we do, have had the privilege to witness that these words of the LORD are not just platitudes nor the outlandish promises made by some politician seeking votes. We have the witness of the apostles of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament of the Bible that the LORD has done exactly what He has said He would do. For the LORD clearly stated: “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken” (vs. 23,24).
All has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Notice that the LORD did not say He would set up a son of David to be this one shepherd. No, He specifically stated He would set up “my servant David.” When this statement was made, King David of renown had been dead for hundreds of years.
Unless God was planning to raise that David from the dead, then He was speaking of a different David. Keep in mind that the name David means “My Beloved.” And as we are told in the holy record of the New Testament, God has sent His David; that is, His Beloved, His only-begotten Son, to come among His sheep, examine them and shepherd them. On the day of Jesus’ baptism, the Father testified from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased!” In other words, God the Father was testifying to you and to me and to the whole world, “Here is my servant David. He shall be my prince among you. He shall feed you… take care of you… shepherd you.”
Before long we will all be celebrating once again at Christmas that God’s established Shepherd, His beloved, His David, has come and that He has come in our flesh. In the womb of Mary the Holy One of God, the Son of God, became flesh of our flesh, precisely so that He could come among us, closely examine us and our need and provide it to us; that is, He would heal us with the forgiveness of our sins. As we hear the apostle Paul in the humble, thanksgiving, of faith say in our Epistle text, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:12-17). As our Good Shepherd, God’s David, Jesus, did not run away in the face of the wolves of sin, death and the devil seeking to devour us nor did He seek to serve Himself at our expense. Instead, in our flesh and in our place He gave up everything, even His own life, to shepherd us to the pastures of eternal life. As St. Peter states in his second Epistle, “Jesus is the true Bishop of our souls!” (2 Pet. 2:25).
As Jesus’ sheep be comforted also in the knowledge that The LORD’s shepherding of you has not ceased with His ascension back into heaven. He might have removed His physical presence from this world, but He still comes among you to examine and shepherd you. Just as the LORD did not leave His people before Christ to fend for themselves but lead and shepherded them through the prophets, priests and even kings that He appointed to faithfully preach, teach and carefully administer His Word to His sheep, so Jesus sent and equipped His apostles, Evangelists, Pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) with His Word and Sacraments that they might serve as His under-shepherds to lead, comfort, heal, and in all ways provide for you His sheep. Jesus has given to those who have been entrusted with this holy office of shepherding the tools they need to carry out this soul caring ministry; that is, He has given them His Holy Word and His Holy Sacraments. To them Jesus has said, “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them all things I have commanded you. I will be with you always to the ends of the earth.” (Matt. 28:19) … “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21-23)…. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 16:19).
Unlike the wicked and false shepherds of Ezekiel’s day and the unfaithful spiritual rulers of Jesus’ day, these under-shepherds of Jesus feed, heal, nurture and deliver souls by rightly and faithfully handling and serving the Shepherd’s Word, Water, Body and Blood. Want Jesus to continue to be the Bishop of your soul? Seek not those pastors who just fill your ears with earthly platitudes, make you feel good in your sin, or tell you what you want to hear. But seek those pastors who faithfully preach Jesus’ Word and administer His Sacraments. They are the true under-shepherds of Jesus. They will keep you in the care of the true Bishop of your soul.