Jeremiah 23: 1-6
By Reverend Kelly Giese
Jeremiah’s oracles of a future king, a messiah, indicate that the sheep, the pasture, the people, the flock, never leave the watchful eye of the Lord. All are referred to as “mine” belonging to Yahweh. There is a close association of the Lord the God of Israel to those who shepherd and know the sheep; and to the land, its fecundity, and even to the spiritual lives of the sheep and shepherds: God dispels fear, corrects those who are in error, and even finds the missing.
There is also a movement from condemnation to salvation, “woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter” and then into a time in which the One who reigns will “deal wisely” and “execute justice and righteousness” in the land.
It is a passage that mourns for belonging and at the same time points toward our ultimate “belongingness” to One who will not lose us or allow us to wallow in despair. The Hebrew word for shepherd – ra-ah connotes a God is One who tends, who associates with, who keeps company, hovering, existing in the midst of Israel, YHWH is present in such a way that we are both unable to observe the leading, yet able to hear the warnings and yet we are never beyond where we have been scattered “I will gather… out of all the lands where I have driven them”
It is worth remembering that sheep and shepherds rest at the fringes of society; while scripture is replete with the notion that shepherds are leaders within Israel; scripture is also clear at various times, that sheep and shepherds exist outside the gates, in the wild places, and in this agrarian society, where they are tended, watched, and nurtured, this is a frequent metaphor for God and God’s people.
In James Rebanks book The Shepherd’s Life, subtitled Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape, Rebanks tells of living in a place in which a time traveler from nearly a thousand years in the past might arrive in the midst of gathering the sheep and at once recognize the work and take part. In that place sheep and shepherd are not separate but as one, “our lives are not entirely our own creation,” we live in relation and are known by how we care for and tend to the needs of others.
Conversely, Jeremiah reminds us, we are also known by our inattentiveness and failures to care for the land and for others.
Rebank is also telling a story as “someone who is trying desperately hard to stay” in a place that he knows well. Late in the story, he returns to the farm after having left it for a time of attending Oxford, he writes “Leaving the farm is supposed to make you have another life, but my leaving just made me realize that the farm was the beginning and end of everything for me. When I was young, my grandfather had stood with me in a barn that was isolated up in some of his fields; he said someday I should make it into a house and live there. And now that idea was in my head. It was my goal. It was the first thought in my head in the morning and my last thought at night. As the joke goes, it isn’t a matter of life and death; it is far more important than that.” (184)
Jeremiah too is reminding Israel (and us?) that we belong, that we are never far from a God who creates and sustains even when we have “all strayed like sheep.” To be intimately known is to belong to the God who creates the people, the land, the sheep, the shepherds, the roots, the branches, the shoots, all that will grow and all that is, belong to God, even those who resist growth, are being offered a warning.
On Christ the King Sunday or the Reign of Christ we come to an ending within the Christian year. We might ask: How have we been keeping time with the God who keeps time? What are we paying attention to? What holds us captive? What do we need to let go of? How is our life and our way of living supportive of or detrimental to the care and tending of what we have received? Where are the invitations to “a great turning” a metanoia in which we give ourselves again to the God who wisely executes justice and righteousness in the land?
Psalm 47, invites us to “be still, and know” the God who is with us; an invitation to Sabbath, to the practice of lying fallow, of returning and rest. It is both an invitation and the recognition that we have nowhere else to go, and in that awareness we may begin to learn to love what God loves, to be reoriented to our place, our time.
Kelly Giese is an elder in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the New Mexico Annual Conference. She is married to a farmer and helps lead meditative walks in and around Albuquerque with Mountain Cathedrals, a ministry of St John’s UMC.
Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in the revised common lectionary, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.