The True Shepherd
  • Sunday, July 22, 2012

Pentecost 8

First reading: 2 Sam. 7:1-14a; Ps. 89:20-37
Alternate: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23
Eph. 2:11-22 • Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Zedekiah was what the Babylonian king had renamed him: “the Lord is my righteousness.” He hailed from a branch of the royal family, but not as the proper heir, this Mattaniah of Judah. Just 21, he was little more than a puppet of the great master “beyond the river.” Nebuchadnezzar almost certainly meant it as a taunt, and plenty of snickering likely followed in the hanging gardens as he broke the joke to his courtiers — the ermine-fringed version of the rough soldier’s order, “sing us one of the songs of Zion.” Little Mattanaiah would trust in the king of Babylon if he knew what was good for him, and leave the religious myth-making to Jeremiah the prophet, his sour-faced counselor.

Jeremiah knew his king’s throne straddled a rock and a hard place, but he bore no words of sympathy from the Lord. This king, too, had been tried and found wanting. He was no Moses, no David — no true Shepherd of Israel. But even as all was falling apart, there is hope. God, in his own time, would send a true Zedekiah, a great and final Shepherd, the Lord our righteousness. He would bring the exiles home, and execute justice. “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely.”

Jeremiah singles out the shepherd’s care for his flock as the greatest mark of the promised ruler. Other prophets had criticized Israel’s rulers for their greed or corruption; a true shepherd, they stressed, would be revealed by his zeal for justice or commanding power. But for Jeremiah, the shepherd will be known by compassion, and the trust and confidence that his presence evokes in those who belong to him. “They will not fear any longer, or be dismayed.” God will raise up a shepherd to enact his own watchful care for the people, whose work will reveal the covenant bond. Of this shepherd they will say, “He restores my soul, and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.”

Jesus is just this shepherd, Mark insists. Twice the people recognize him and hurry to be with him. They hunger for his teaching and healing touch. His power is evident and makes them feel safe. But most importantly, they desire him, just as he is drawn in turn. “He had compassion on them,” Mark tells us, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Thus his rule is marked by communion shared with his people. On the shores of the lake are understanding, trust, love.

In assembling this Sunday’s lessons, the Lectionary editors made an inspired decision. The theme of the true Shepherd is the perfect backdrop to the abundant store of John 6, whose rich fare of wise teaching will sustain us for the next five Sundays. Shepherds provide their flocks with good food, protect them from danger, and guide them over trackless hills. But delight in the presence of the beloved, above all, marks the true shepherd. The sheep belong to him.

Look It Up
Read Num. 27:12-23. What marks of the “spirit of leadership” does God see in Joshua? How are they perfected in Christ?

Think About It
Jeremiah proclaims that when the great Shepherd has brought God’s scattered people home, they will “be fruitful and multiply,” fulfilling the first of all commandments. What other allusions to created life before the fall may be found in Jeremiah? Why is the connection so strong, and “natural”?

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