Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Ezekiel 34:1-16) transports me to early 19th century England, where economist William Forster Lloyd is observing the state of affairs among some shepherds in the English countryside. They are grazing their flocks on common land, which, if they are wise shepherds, will sustain the life of their flocks and provide a living for them. However, human nature being what it is, one shepherd starts calculating that his standard of living would rise if he just added one more sheep to the flock. One more wouldn’t harm the grazing land. But, as you might expect, as soon as one shepherd does it, another gets the idea, and then another, and if one more would raise the living standard, why not another, and another? You can guess what effect this has on the land, and ultimately on the flocks and the shepherds. Ecologist Garrett Hardin picked up on this parable in his 1968 seminal essay, the Tragedy of the Commons, in which he rebutted Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory, showing that unrestrained and unregulated use of our common resources lead to the ultimate ruin of both the resources and those who live off them. Interestingly enough, his essay has been cited as proof by economists on all sides of ideological debates. Conservative property rights folks argue that the parable proves that communism won’t work, that it leads to devastating consequences, and that private property ownership is the only solution (with every shepherd taking care of his or her own patch of land). Liberals argue that the essay proves the need for strict government regulation (zoning, land use, etc). Socialists argue that the real problem was not the commons but was private property – with each shepherd owning a private flock – and that the solution would be a collective ownership of all sheep. What is common to all sides in these debates is the sad picture the parable portrays of shepherds – selfish, short-sighted, downright dumb.
Neither William Forster Lloyd nor Garret Hardin were the first to exploit the image of shepherds to demonstrate the folly of human nature. The prophet Ezekiel took his stab at them in our passage today. He critiqued the country’s poor leadership by portraying them as selfish, short-sighted, and exploitive shepherds, enjoying the commodities of wool and fat but taking no care for the welfare of the sheep. On the contrary, the bad shepherds treated the poor animals with harsh cruelty, and ultimately, left them to wander on their own, scattered on the high hills, vulnerable to the predators that roamed the mountainsides. Ezekiel doesn’t leave the flock there, though. The prophet promises that God would assume the role of good shepherd and deal directly with the needs of the people, without mediation. God would seek and search for the sheep, and in an echo of Psalm 23, would make them lie down in lush pastures, protected from the cruelties of life lurking in the dark shadows. But there’s an interesting twist to Ezekiel’s prophecy and his analysis of the failed leadership of Israel, contrasted with God’s pastoral care. Ezekiel sees the tragic flaw of the shepherds in their failure to care for the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed. God, by contrast, as the good shepherd, will seek the lost, will bind up the injured, will strengthen the weak. And then, to punctuate the contrast, Ezekiel says God will destroy the fat and the strong.
There’s a tendency in some of our bland theologies to bleach out all the differences between rich and poor, strong and weak, to spiritualize the human condition in our culture and say that we are all lost and in need of God, we are equally weak, equally poor, equally distant from God and in need of salvation. Such a spiritualization ignores the prophetic word that God indeed has a preference for the poor in our world. God is not blind to the gaps between strong and weak, between oppressor and oppressed, between exploiter and exploited. Mary must have had passages like this on her mind when she sang her Magnificat, envisioning the hand of God filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away, lifting the lowly and scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones. Once those of us in the privileged world get scattered and de-throned, we have the capacity to join the community of the poor, the hungry, the weak, and enjoy the blessed care of the Shepherd. It’s counter-intuitive, for sure, but it’s in those communities of need that the lush pastures and the still waters lie.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith?