1Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. 2Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. 3Then I, myself, will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.
5 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up, for David, a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety, and this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.
As with the vast majority of the writings of the prophets, the environment in which Jeremiah finds himself is one of corruption in the religious establishment. Like the other prophets, Jeremiah spent much of his time speaking God’s word to an unreceptive audience, just as 21st century prophets find themselves doing; and when an oracle, such as this, starts with “woe” it’s more than just bad news for those in the sights of the prophet. Given that attendances in “mainstream” churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Uniting in particular – have been declining for many years I would not like to be a bishop, or equivalent, in any of them, and have to read this passage from Jeremiah. It’s the responsibility of clergy, at all levels, to guide the faithful flock and to build up that flock by welcoming new people and helping to convert non-believers into believers. Though the number of clergy involved in child sexual abuse in Australian institutions is small, and the proportion of errant clergy is no larger than the proportion in the wider community, the churches’ response to the issue is one which continues to drive people from our churches. Jeremiah doesn’t mince matters. ‘Woe to those shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep’ is bad enough for the perpetrators of abuse, but the passage goes further. Those who have not attended to the problem are also in the firing line, and God is not happy! ‘I will attend to you for your evil doings.’ I’m reminded about a public meeting with one of the bishops, in which we were told 10% of people in the suburb we were in considered themselves Anglican, only 2% attended church at least twice a year making a parish unviable, and the solution was to make the parish bigger to have more people contributing to the cost of running it. Where is the Good Shepherd, bringing the lost sheep back to church? This scream from Jeremiah is all about divine judgement. We’ve been hit in the face with the reality of declining attendances, and then we’ve been hit with a warning of judgement to come because we either haven’t attended to the problem, or we’ve exacerbated it. There is no forgiveness in this passage, though we, as Christians, would expect, and hope, to find it.
On first reading I missed a challenging word, but then thought “hang on a minute”! God says that He will gather the flock from the lands where HE has driven them. Wasn’t it the unfaithful shepherds who had driven them away and not attended to them? I looked at several commentaries to check what renowned scholars were saying about that, and there were very few who said anything. A scholarly answer suggests that the shepherds were driving them out of their own land, and God was driving them to foreign lands, for their own safety, before being rescued and returned to Israel.
Jeremiah continues issuing the word of the Lord against a people who will not listen. God will take over feeding the sheep, and looking after them. He will be like The Good Shepherd and go looking for those who have been lost, bringing them back to the fold himself, because those who have had responsibility for that task have been like the hireling. When the lost have been returned to the fold, God will select a new breed of shepherds, one which will look after the flock faithfully. Ouch!! Are we listening, or are we just hearing?
Thankfully, there is hope of redemption and reconciliation for the flock which has been scattered and decimated. We can look forward to God bringing in a new era where we can live in safety, where the religious community will be well supported, where people are brought to Christ on a daily basis, and where the Good News will be celebrated.
When our Jewish friends celebrate the Passover, it is not a memorial of an event well in the past, but a real-live moment in their own lives, such is the connection with scripture. If we took the same approach with the birth of Christ then how would that affect our lives? Is that how God will bring back to the fold the lost sheep who don’t know they are lost?