Proper 29 (November 23, 2008)
Common Lectionary Texts:
Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps. 95:1-7a; Eph. 1:15-23; Matt. 25:31-46
This week we traveled to Palestine to visit MCC partners in the Gaza Strip, where the situation continues to deteriorate due to divided Palestinian leadership and an Israeli-imposed economic blockade. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter Gaza because Israeli authorities had closed the crossing. Instead, we visited MCC staff in Jerusalem and attended part of Sabeel’s 7th International Conference. Palestinian academic Dr. Rashid Khalidi gave a powerful lecture about the importance of a united Palestinian vision and nonviolent strategies for achieving that vision.
While in Jerusalem, we received word that Cindy’s 87-year-old father, Vernon Lehman, was near death and that she should come to Ohio right away. Fortunately, Cindy was able to get on a flight within 12 hours and made it home in time to say good-bye to her dad. He died peacefully at home on Wednesday evening, Nov. 19.
We will remember Dad Lehman for his servant spirit, his steadfast faith, his love of family, his enjoyment of nature, his memory of details and delight in telling stories. His example has inspired and will continue to inspire us.
The Common Lectionary readings this week are about sheep, shepherds and caring for the most vulnerable.
In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Ezekiel chides the shepherds of Israel who have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed or sought the lost (Ezek. 34:4). Rather, these bad shepherds have fed themselves and tended to their own needs, while ruling harshly and neglecting the needs of the sheep. For this reason God says: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down . . . 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, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”(vv.15-16).
The psalmist urges us to worship and kneel before our Creator (Ps. 95:6). Why? Because “he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (v.7a).
In the Epistle reading, Paul demonstrates a shepherd’s heart for the church at Ephesus. He prays that God will give them a “spirit of wisdom and understanding . . . so that (they) may know what is the hope to which God has called (them), what are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for (all) who believe.” (Eph. 1:17-19).
In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the day when sheep will be separated from goats. In this final judgment, the Son of Man will bless those who have cared for “the least of these” – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (Matt. 25:34-36). In the same way, those who have ignored the least of these will be punished harshly (vv.41-46).
Images of sheep and shepherds are still common in the Middle East. Even at the edges of large cities like Amman, it is not uncommon to see flocks of sheep with a shepherd nearby. The shepherd helps the sheep find the scattered patches of vegetation among the barren landscape and keeps them from straying onto the 4-lane highways where cars whiz by. It is a fascinating contrast of ancient and modern cultures side-by-side.
Scripture contains many comforting images of God as a caring shepherd. But other biblical images remind us that, not only are we God’s sheep, we are also to be shepherds who care for one another’s needs – especially for the most vulnerable. Indeed, Scripture reserves some of its harshest words for those religious, business and political leaders who look out for themselves but fail to use their position, power, influence and resources to benefit the most vulnerable people.
May we rest in the reality that we are God’s well-tended sheep. And may this image stir us to use our sphere of influence — however big or small – to care for “the least of these.” Jesus says that, in so doing, it is as if we are caring for him (Matt. 25:40).