Feeding Sheep or Eating Them? — John 10:1-21 and Ezekiel 34

Studies in John’s Gospel — Bible Study Lesson 26

By Reta Halteman Finger

A pen for sheep or donkeys at Nazareth Village - photo by Reta Finger
A pen for sheep or donkeys at Nazareth Village – photo by Reta Finger

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse—or scattering a flock of sheep—by pursuing the shepherd image one more time. While working with John 10, a chance footnote sent me to Ezekiel 34, a long chapter on “Israel’s False Shepherds” and “God, the True Shepherd.” Jesus obviously drew shepherd allegories from his scriptures as well as from local sheepherding practices. Jerusalem Pharisees in his audience (John 9:40-41) would have known the same prophetic texts Jesus knew. They could easily connect the “hired hand” who runs away when the wolf comes (John 10:12) with Ezekiel’s condemnation of past Israelite leaders as well as with Jesus’ judgment of the current temple system.

True and false shepherds

The prophet Ezekiel lived before and during the major crisis in Israelite history: the Babylonian conquests of Judea in 597 and 587 BCE. With land lost and temple destroyed, the wealthier classes of Jews were marched off to Babylon. Ezekiel 34:1-10a describes the conditions leading to the crisis, while verses 10b-31 offer hope that someday Yahweh will be their shepherd, with “my servant David” (34:23-24) as a metaphor for a righteous king under Yahweh.

Ezekiel’s description of the false shepherds translates all too well into the 21st century, as large corporations extract resources from powerless people and regions, leaving them worse off than before. “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2-3). In contrast, Yahweh says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost… and bind up the injured (34:15-16). Knowing Ezekiel 34 in light of Jesus’s shepherd allegories would certainly provoke his listeners to either rage or hope. How can this poor Galilean, this insignificant descendant of King David, appropriate Yahweh’s claims as the True Shepherd? No wonder they have divided opinions! (John 10:19-21).

Shepherds who feed themselves

An article from the Religion News Service on clerical housing reminded me of the false shepherds of Ezekiel 34. David Gibson observes that Pope Francis’s rejection of wealth, including “deluxe digs in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace,” is pressuring other church leaders to reconsider. The most egregious offender has been Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany (aka “Bishop Bling”), who cut staff in order to build a $43 million residence and office complex. The pope recently accepted his resignation. Like the rich ruler of Luke 18:18-25 who preferred his possessions to following Jesus, Bishop Bling traded his position for, among other things, a $300,000 fish tank and a $20,000 bathtub.

But some American church leaders want to have their cake and eat it too. Newark, NJ, Archbishop John Myers defends the $500,000 addition to his spacious retirement home, which will include an indoor pool, hot tub, three fireplaces, and an elevator. In Camden, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the country, Bishop Dennis Sullivan spent $500,000 to buy a 7,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom mansion. Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, MA, bought a $3.6 million condo for its rector Samuel T. Lloyd III. Even a Southern Baptist got in on the game. Steven Furtick, pastor of a fast-growing church in North Carolina, plans to build a $1.6 million home.

The “false shepherds of Israel” were not only priests, but kings as well. According to 1 and 2 Kings, few Davidic kings followed the laws of Yahweh. They taxed and conscripted their subjects for their building and military campaigns. After the Maccabean War of 167 BCE, the Hasmonean rulers were actually priest-kings, which included a military role. Ezekiel’s description of oppression under false shepherds characterized both pre-exilic Judea and the later Jewish state in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Our American forefathers tried to change that. Democratic ideals of the common good, equal opportunity for all (except slaves and all women!), and separation of religion and politics characterized our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The leader was not to be a king but merely a president, one who presided over a legislature elected by the people. Ezekiel might have been impressed!

American shepherds and their lost sheep

Alas, power corrupts, even in would-be democracies. Nomi Prins wrote All the President’s Bankers (April 2014) to demonstrate the tight relationship between America’s political leaders and the big banks. She summarizes in “Presidents, Bankers and Patriarchies” in the May 1, 2014, Washington Spectator, “There is no revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, but two doors leading to the same construct, the hereditary bipartisan political-financial power complex…True democracy is a myth.” Prins traces the genealogical connections between leaders of the six largest banks of 100 years ago to their heirs today in incarnations of the same “Big Six” banks. They move back and forth from leadership positions in the banks to high positions in government, thus making sure that they take care of their own first. They sound like the hired hands who throw the sheep to the wolves when the walls of the sheepfold crumble, as in the financial crash of 2008.

After pondering the shepherd imagery in John 10:1-21, read through Ezekiel 34. Then think about the way each passage complements the other and the light they shed on the following:

Questions for discussion or reflection.

1.  In Ezekiel  34:1-5, what are the specific duties of a noble shepherd that the false shepherds failed to do?  Contrast this failure with the promises of God, the Shepherd, in 34:11-16.

2.  Name other true or false shepherds today in church, society, and government. How does Jesus, the Noble Shepherd, compare with them?

3.  What are your experiences of shepherding or being shepherded?

4.  Following up on this imagery of shepherds and sheep, why do you think Psalm 23 is so meaningful in so many people’s lives?  You might enjoy listening to these various musical settings of Psalm 23.   Here is an additional one (see lyrics here).  And since God is beyond gender, be sure to listen to this rendition by Bobby McFerrin, using feminine pronouns.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.