FR MICHAEL BIBLICAL IMAGERY
(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)
In the first reading the kings of Israel are referred to as shepherds, but it was customary throughout the ancient world to give kings the honorific title of “shepherd.” The shepherd language draws on one of the most common images for kingship in the ancient Near East. While the experience of monarchy could be harsh, its ideology assumed the role of a shepherd, who watched over his flock, protected them, kept them together and in order, and made sure that any who were hurt were taken care of. But that is what these kings have failed to do, the cardinal example in Jeremiah’s time being Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:13-17) and the manner of failure being the perpetration of injustice and economic oppression.
The first sentence in today’s first reading states graphically that “it is you who have scattered my flock.” The prophet lays the predicaments of the people at the doorsteps of the kings who were supposed to serve as shepherds of the flock of God. God therefore promises to judge those shepherds who exercised their powers wrongly. The prophet laced his pronouncement of judgement with a message of hope for the people. He makes an emphatic statement in Verse 3 where he turns the whole thing around and opens up a door of hope and expectation beyond exile. The Lord says, “While it is you (the kings) who have scattered my flock, I, for my part, am going to gather my flock and bring them back into the fold.”
The shepherd imagery continues both in the depiction of the Lord’s shepherding and in the announcement that the Lord will raise up new shepherds who will truly be that for the people. Within the language of these verses are significant allusions to types of speech and style common to judgment and salvation oracles. God promises to judge those exercising power and replace them with the true Shepherd from the house of David who will rightly bear the title “The Lord is our Righteousness.”
During the time of Jesus, the kings, high priests, and others who occupied shepherding offices disappointed the people to the extent that the inspired writer described the situation as “sheep without a shepherd”; and the crowd of people flocking to Jesus seemed like this to him. The people instinctively sensed that he was the Good Shepherd sent from God, who is not intent on exercising his power over them but who gathers and guides them for their own sake. The powerful have had plenty of opportunity to rule them – not only Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman rulers, but also their own merciless lords, to whom they were merely an ignorant mass “entirely born in sin” (John 9:34). Jesus wishes for a moment’s rest, but the crowd pursues him and makes such claims on him that he does “not even have time to eat.” Ultimately, he will have to offer himself as food for these hungry people. He now tells the people that he is the type of shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.
The second reading reveals the concluding work of the Good Shepherd. He succeeds, if only by giving his life in exchange for the lives of the people he leads. I am finding it difficult to get many “shepherds of nations” who can really make sacrifices for the good of their citizens. In our day those who play shepherding roles can be heads of state, kings, priests and other influential leaders. When you listen to the voice of the masses, they seem to demand the “Christ-like” type of leadership from their leaders. Let us continue to pray for the Lord to send us good shepherds. Please do remember to pray for those in leadership positions.