When the prophets used metaphorical language to communicate ineffable concepts using familiar representations, they were counting on their audience’s ability to draw on their personal experiences to make the connection real. Few of us have enough personal experience with the role of a shepherd to fully capture the significance of the picture Jeremiah is painting in chapter 23. Through Jeremiah’s word pictures, God is pointing out that the kings of Israel are neither the owners of the people nor the land in which they dwell any more than shepherds are the owners of the sheep they conserve or the land in which they graze. Shepherds only had their jobs because they were designated by the owner of the sheep. Likewise, kings were not governing the people because they owned them, had social superiority over them, or even had been elected from a pool of qualified candidates. God did not cede his authority or moral responsibility to God’s people—God maintained dominion while delegating protective custody of God’s beloved to a human leader for their good. What a dismal failure those human delegates were! Instead of herding the sheep, they had scattered them. Instead of protecting them, they led them into destruction.
For us who live in a culture that emphasizes personal responsibility and individualism, it is difficult to identify as one of a flock. Yet it is also painfully apparent that we bear individual, personalized consequences as a result of systemic failure. Ask Californians who have lost property because of fires attributed to poor maintenance of power lines or families who have faced bankruptcy following medical bills their insurer didn’t cover or ask thousands of others who have found themselves outside the protection of systems they trusted or were constrained to. Individuals have been scattered from their homes and destroyed by debt or lost their nest eggs in unanticipated ways not because of poor personal choices, but because they have been let down by systems they belonged to—betrayed by leaders who served economic interests of shareholders above the personal good of individual patrons in a failure to shepherd the sheep of their flock. They—we–are faceless and unanticipated casualties of a values system that disregards the sacred responsibility of power no less than the wicked kings of Israel. We can make that connection to the biblical metaphor of sheep guarded by an evil shepherd just by scanning the newsfeed on our phones when the alarm goes off each morning.
Jeremiah, the prophet, cries to God’s ancient people: WOE! Great sorrow and trouble to these leaders when God brings the darkness of their doing to light. When God steps in and takes over, when God calls the evil shepherds to account, God will assert righteousness to redeem those who have been harmed. We are not privy to the punishment God will mete out to the offenders, but we do get a picture of what God will do for those who have been disenfranchised. God will gather them, bring them home, repatriate them under God’s own tender care and restore them. They will not be terrified or re-traumatized. Instead they will be fruitful and multiply, living out their created purpose and calling. They will experience shalom-wholeness. No one in Israel or Judah will be left out or left behind, because God has had a watchful eye on each of them all along. They were impacted, but never owned, by the brutality of their failed system, administrated by shepherds who failed to represent their master with integrity. Yet the master will not remain distant. The owner of both sheep and shepherd will bring justice.
This is the promise of the Messiah who came in history, who comes in the now, and who will come again to reign forevermore.
The Messiah was prophesied to come connected to the human lineage of God’s plan of redemption through the line of David. He would embody wise leadership. He would understand, implement and inspire justice and ethical relationships. He would lead into a community of safety where his people would be deeply attached to their Creator. They would call Messiah ‘Lord’ because they could trust his righteousness and know that he saves them from the terrible weight of oppression they experienced under evil shepherding. God’s self would become the good shepherd of God’s flock. Messiah came to Bethlehem in Galilee to fulfill that mission.
Jeremiah’s prophesy calls us still to participate in the present moment of God’s redemption. As we know Messiah through the prophets’ images and Jesus’ life example, we reflect Christ in the present by our transformed lives and relationships. We live ethically, we seek justice and love mercy. We are humble as our savior is humble, and care for others as our savior taught us to care. Messiah continually comes as we live in imitation of Christ and in obedience to Christ’s teachings.
Jeremiah’s prophesy calls us to hope-filled anticipation of the future. Now we see through a glass darkly and our ability to perceive the fullness of God’s redemptive plan is limited by our own wounds and limitations. But we know that the Messiah will come again to triumph over all manner of earthly corruption and will wipe every tear from our eyes. The reconciliation of all things will be made complete and the fullness of Christ’s lordship will be recognized forever and ever.
Jeremiah’s message continues to provide us with a powerful sense of God’s ongoing work of redemption, anticipated in the Advent season, appreciated in our present participation, to be fully apprehended in the Kingdom to come. May we all be challenged to gather together those in our world who have been scattered and to bestow care on them in honor of the one who so righteously shepherds us.