Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
The theme connecting our readings is that of the Shepherd & the Sheep. We are well used to the idea that God the Father (according to the 23rd Psalm) or Jesus, the Son (in his parable of the Good Shepherd) is the Good Shepherd, but what it all that talk in Jeremiah of Bad Shepherds?
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, God promises that he will punish those who have been bad shepherds to his people. But who are these bad shepherds, and what do they have to do with God’s care of his people?
The years of the prophet Jeremiah's activity were the most turbulent time for the leaders of ancient Judah. Judah – the Southern half of what we think of as Israel – had always been a bit of a political football.
For many years the Assyrian empire had been the most powerful, but now that was waning, and the Babylonian empire was on the rise.
Assyria and Egypt, who had once been rivals, now had a tenuous alliance to try, unsuccessfully to keep Babylon in check.
All this international upheaval left the kings in the small nation of Judah with some very difficult decisions.
King Josiah had perceptively realized that Babylon would be the winner of this ancient Near Eastern battle for supremacy and actually fought for Babylon against Egypt, but he had been killed, and the kings who followed Josiah -- Jehoiakim, Jehoachin, and Zedekiah -- were in a very precarious predicament. Should they pay taxes to the new empire of Babylon, whose territory extended over a wide range and whose capital was far away?
Or should they side with Egypt in the conflict, a nation that was much closer to their own borders?
Which imperial alliance would yield the most benefit for the people of Judah? Could there even be an opportunity for Judah to stand independently of these empires, not paying taxation to either one?
Around 600 BCE, one of Judah's shepherds, Jehoiakim, chose poorly and withheld taxes from Babylon, angering the Babylonians who invaded Jerusalem shortly after Jehoiakim's death. The Babylonians took his successor, Jehoiachin, into exile with the upper class leaders of Jerusalem, and replaced him with Zedekiah. Zedekiah, however, was another bad shepherd, who by 590 BCE, decided to withhold tribute once again to Babylon, against the advice of Jeremiah.
The first two verses of the passage we head from Jeremiah address Jehoiakim's and Zedekiah's failed leadership that led to exile. A shepherd's role was to gather the sheep together and protect them. The shepherds of Judah, however, had made decisions that placed the people in peril and ultimately led to their exile.
In all this peril, God wants his people to learn to trust in him – to rely on him and not on any political allegiance to save them. So all these political leaders have been bad shepherds, and God promises that he himself will care for his flock and then will send a good and holy king – a good shepherd, to care for them.
But what has all this to so with us? We do not face our country being over-run by a foreign power or being taken off into exile and we don’t have to wonder whether we should pay our taxes or not. We live in a time of relative peace, relative prosperity, relative security. But the question of who or what to trust for our future is as relevant as ever.
Every advert you ever see will try to convince you that there is something out there which will bring you happiness and security: from double-glazing to a new car to the right chewing gum. If only we owned that thing.. if only we won the lottery.. if only we were younger-looking, or famous, or more charismatic. Then life would be better, or easier, or more complete.
But God says to us as much as he does to the battered people of Judah that we need to learn to look for the good shepherd who will help us to find what really makes life worth living – who will lead us to full and eternal life.
And of we need a shepherd, we need to acknowledge that we are just sheep in need of help. Sheep get a bad name, don’t they – all we like sheep have gone astray; we might tell children to stop behaving like sheep and learn to think for themselves; certainly looking ‘sheepish’ is not a good thing.
So how do you feel about being a sheep?
Admitting we’re sheep means admitting we don’t have the answers to life – that we cannot mange on our own – that we are weak and vulnerable and too easily take the wrong path. Then when we’re ready to accept that we are sheep, perhaps we are ready to accept that Jesus is our Good Shepherd, caring for people and looking at them with pity. Leading us, through teaching and example, to where we need to be: as the psalmist puts it, to green pasture & still water & through valley of shadow of death...cared for, fed and loved forever.
In the Gospel reading we heard how Jesus offered healing & restoration & the one word that really appeals to me REST. He calls his followers to come apart with him and rest. He is not just offering them sleep or inactivity – but rest from their concerns and worries, and a time to stop their ceaseless futile activity.
So to all who are weary, Jesus says today come aside with me, come to this table and receive what will really make your life worthwhile – my rest, my life, my love.
May we all know ourselves guided, fed and cared for by the Good Shepherd, today & always. Amen.