Ruminating on Justice

I. Introduction

One of the most beautiful images we have for God is found in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Lord is my shepherd, the psalmist wrote. And a thousand years later, Jesus said, I am the good shepherd. [1] So we can be forgiven if we think this imagery is unique to the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But it’s not. It was actually quite a common image for the divine among ancient religions. [2] And I suppose it’s easy to understand why. Shepherding was a common profession, and so everybody knew what one was. But more than that, shepherds represented something more than themselves. They stood for leading and protection and feeding—traits people also wanted to see in their gods.

They were also, by the way, traits they wanted to see in their monarchs. Just as some cultures believed that their monarch was divine, they also pinned to the monarch the divine metaphor of shepherd. And that’s what we see in the Hebrew Bible. The greatest Hebrew king wasn’t divine. In fact the Bible goes to great lengths to make sure we know just how human he was, and just how dependent he was on the God of Israël. But he was a shepherd. Quite literally. He was anointed king when he was still a shepherd boy in the town of Bethlehem, [3] and it’s said that the 23rd Psalm—the one that begins, The Lord is my shepherd—was written by him.

But the 23rd chapter of the Book of Psalms is only six verses long. A much longer chapter about shepherds is Ezekiel 34. And here we see the shepherd metaphor clearly being used for both God and monarch. It starts out as a prophecy against the shepherds of Israël—that is, its rulers—who eat the mutton and wear the wool, but don’t accept responsibility for the flock it came from. The solution, according to this prophecy, is that God will take responsibility, and God will place another shepherd at the head of the flock—the ideal king and the ideal servant of God, David. And by this, Ezekiel is talking not about a reïncarnation of David, but about the house of David, or David’s dynasty.

This is why the evangelist Luke went to such trouble to explain how and why it came about that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t born in Nazareth, but was born in Bethlehem, the ancestral town of King David.

I think I just used a word in a way that not everybody understands. When I say evangelist, I’m not talking about a fiery preacher who holds crusades in huge venues in order to convert souls. Some form of evangel (based on the Greek) is the word in many languages for the English word gospel. [4] And so the literal meaning of the word evangelist is simply one who writes an evangel, or a gospel writer.

So getting back to the gospels, here we read the good news of Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of David, born in the little town of Bethlehem, just as the shepherd boy David had been a thousand years before him. And Jesus himself used shepherd imagery. In today’s gospel reading, he tells a parable about a shepherd looking for a lost sheep—the exact same thing Ezekiel had said that God would do. And the metaphor is completed in John’s gospel when Jesus said that the good shepherd was none other than himself.

Thus in Christ, the image of the shepherd as shepherd, as king, and as God finds its fullness. Christ is the shepherd of our souls, Christ is the shepherd appointed by God to care for God’s people, and Christ is the divine Son of God who has the power to make shepherds to care for his flock.

II. The Ninety and Nine

So the parable in Luke 15 is a particularly powerful one. You heard it read a few minutes ago. Here it is retold in nineteenth century language:

    There were ninety and nine that safely lay
    in the shelter of the fold;
    but one was out on the hills away,
    far off from the gates of gold—
    away on the mountains wild and bare;
    away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

    “Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine;
    are they not enough for thee?”
    But the Shepherd made answer: “This of mine
    has wandered away from me.
    And although the road be rough and steep,
    I go to the desert to find my sheep.”

    But none of the ransomed ever knew
    how deep were the waters crossed;
    nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
    ere he found his sheep that was lost.
    Out in the desert he heard its cry;
    'twas sick and helpless and ready to die.

    “Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
   that mark out the mountain’s track?”
    “They were shed for one who had gone astray
    ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
    “Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?”
    “They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.”

    And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
    and up from the rocky steep,
    there arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
    “Rejoice! I have found my sheep!”
    And the angels echoed around the throne,
    “Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!” [5]

These are deeply moving words, for they tell us of a personal relationship with Jesus. Reading it on September 11, I can’t help thinking of souls in danger. But I also think of other souls—not the ones in danger, but those whose passion was to save them.

III. Nine Eleven

Most of you have heard my September 11 story a million times, and probably don’t wish to hear it again. But September 11 falls on a Sunday this year, and I think the story fits. I was on an overnight flight from Germany just about to enter U.S. airspace when the little plane on the flight progress screen turned north suddenly, just before the screen went blank. I doubt many people were watching it at the moment, and I just assumed there was some malfunction, but a few minutes later the pilot announced to us that U.S. airspace had been closed, and we were landing not at JFK, but in Gander. I’ve always loved geography, and so I knew that Gander was in Newfoundland, Canada. I was probably one of the few passengers who did know that. But nobody was thinking about geography. We were wondering what was going on. But nobody told us. We flew a couple more hours and then circled the airport for a while before finally landing around noon. Taxiing not to a gate, but to something akin to an angled parking space in a grocery store parking lot, we passed dozens of other jumbo jets from seemingly every country in the world. Thousands of people—over seven thousand, as it turned out—had descended on a town of about five thousand inhabitants.

And we sat on the tarmac for six more hours before the pilot finally announced why we were there. We were incredulous, and we had several more hours to think about it, all the while thinking that the planes would eventually lumber back out onto the runway and take off for their final destination. But there was no movement. Until midnight when we were deplaned and taken through Canadian immigration. We were not allowed our luggage. In the airport terminal we were served a red cross meal, before being taken in school buses to a local high school.

It’s important to say here that I was living in Puerto Rico at the time, and that I’d been in Germany because I was getting ready to take a post as a missionary there coördinating English-speaking ministries and acting as a liaison for military chaplains stationed in Europe. My mother didn’t know that I was moving to Europe, nor did she even know I was on a plane. September 11 is her birthday, and I had been unable to call her.

But Newfoundland is in a weird time zone of its own, and so midnight in Gander was only 10:30 in Kentucky. When we got off the bus, I was the first to rush into the school building and the first to find the pay phones. I called her, wished her a happy birthday, and explained where I was. After that particular bit of drama was brought to a close, I wandered—no less dazed than anyone else—into the school lobby where a TV was on CNN. There was a lot of new I didn’t know, and a lot of images I hadn’t seen. But the first bit of information I saw on the news that night concerned the hundreds of firefighters who’d lost their lives when the towers collapsed—hundreds of firefighters who’d gone into the most dangerous place imaginable to try to rescue those who had no chance of rescuing themselves.

I spent five nights sleeping on a classroom floor in Gander, Newfoundland. There was never a moment that I felt unsafe. There was never a moment when I went hungry. Every linen closet for miles around was emptied out so that we’d all have pillows and blankets. Every kitchen in that part of Newfoundland was working overtime to supply homemade food to a refugee population bigger than Gander itself. Medicine was given away. Taxis were refusing money. When we finally left for New York in the wee hours of the morning on September 16, none of us could possibly say that 9/11 had been a bad experience, for we saw that even as some were trying to take away people’s humanity, others showed the goodness humanity was truly capable of. I believed then and I will maintain to the end of my days that, had the leaders of the world experienced what I experienced, Afghanistan wouldn’t have happened. Iraq wouldn’t have happened. There would’ve been no Guantánamo. And all the unintended consequences whose seeds were planted on September 11, 2001 would never have come to fruition.

IV. Conclusion

It’s fine and well for us to read the parable of the lost sheep as though it’s about a one-on-one relationship with Jesus. But there are a hundred sheep in the story, and I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that the other 99 had no relationship with Jesus. In the end, it’s a story about wholeness—wholeness, yes, for the one that was lost. But even more importantly, wholeness for the flock that would never be complete without the one that was missing.

I will seek out the lost, God said through the mouth of the prophet, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will feed my sheep with justice. [6]

One of my favorite radio shows is A Way with Words. It’s an NPR program (based here in San Diego, I think) about language, especially about the origins of strange words or sayings. A few weeks back, a man called into the show to ask why the word ruminate was used to refer to both a cow chewing its cud and to a person thinking about something. The history of the word ended up being more complex than expected, but suffice it to say that its double usage was quite ancient. But it seems especially appropriate to think about it in the context of this morning’s reading from Ezekiel. God will be our shepherd. God will seek out the lost. God feed both the lost and the ones who never strayed, both the weak and the strong. They will all ruminate—they will ruminate on justice. And the justice that is a promise to one group is a threat to the other; justice will give new life to those who were dying, but to those who were living the good life, it meant the death of their oppression.

And so today, on 9/11, let’s ruminate on what all this means. The Lord is our shepherd, and we are God’s flock. When hired hands neglect the sheep in their care, God intervenes. When we are lost, God sends One who would seek us out, find us, and bring us home, rejoicing. But God is not the shepherd of just one, but of an entire flock. Peace and truth and justice are the daily bread we are promised. If we cannot stomach peace, if we gag on the truth, and if justice threatens our way of life, we are called to change.

Curtis Mayfield wrote a song we all love (I hope) called People Get Ready. One verse of it has been on my mind a lot recently:

    There ain’t no room 
        for the hopeless sinner
    who would hurt all mankind [sic] 
        just to save his own.
    Have pity on those 
        whose chances grow thinner,
    ’cause there’s no hiding place 
        from the Kingdom’s throne. [7]

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd who left the 99 who were safe to save the one the one who was in danger. The kingdom of heaven is not found in those who were left on their own for a time, and not in the lost alone. It is found in the hundred, when those who were safe and the one who was in danger rejoice together—when the one who wanders admit it’s glad to be back, and the 99 who stayed admit that the wanderer was needed.

Are we safe today? Then let’s think about those who are in danger. Are we in danger today? Then let’s listen to the voice of the One who would stand between us and that which would ruin us.

—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. See Psalm 23:1 and John 10:11, 14.
  2. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, The Book of Ezekiel, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), p.1463.
  3. See 1 Samuel 16:1-13.
  4. Greek εὐαγγέλιον, Latin and German evangelium, Spanish evangelio, French evangile, etc. It’s no accident that you see the word angel in evangel, for an angel is God’s messenger, and the Greek word means good message, or good tidings. We can see this in archaic English. Though the word spell nowadays refers to an incantation, it used to simply mean word, in the same sense we mean it when we ask, What’s the word? or when we say, The word on the street is… Thus a gōdspell (gospel) is a good word, or good news.
  5. Scottish songwriter wrote this song Elizabeth C. Clephane in 1868. She died less than a year later at the age of 38.
  6. Ezekiel 34:1.
  7. Mayfield wrote it in 1964, and it was released as a single by The Impressions in 1965.