Ol’ buddy Zeke paints a great vision of a people of God lost and led astray… if not devoured by their own shepherds in his 34th chapter. And seems to me this is so much more than a historical account as it just literally lays out for us a challenge as a people, a challenge that begins with the Song of Simeon:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; …a light to enlighten the Gentiles : and the glory of thy people Israel.
Of course, Simeon sings this in a great prayer of thanksgiving, but fairly, if it’s right that in being called “Christians” we’re really to be taken as “little christs”, then aren’t we supposed to be the light (or at least let the light of Christ shine through our lives) that illumines the Gentiles? And as I’m not much at this, I read Ezekiel’s condemnation of the priesthood as stern words aimed not just there… but at all of us who would be a people of God. Thus, though in context addressed to the historic people as a “wail and woe is me” for a wayward Israel, or a “woe to the misguided Levite priesthood” as so clearly laid out, for those of us who would be a royal priesthood, and particularly to ourselves as Orthodox Christians, our shepherds (clergy and leaders) and all the people of (even) our New Israel … we seem equally at risk of falling into the dangers of the abyss Ezekiel proclaims.
“O shepherds of Israel who feed themselves, should not the shepherds feed the sheep? Behold, you drink the milk and clothe yourselves with the wool. You slay the fatlings, but do not feed My sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, and the sick you have not revived. The broken you have not bandaged, and the misled you have not brought back. The lost you have not sought, and the strong you have not prepared for labor. So My sheep were scattered, because there were no shepherds. So they became food for all the wild animals of the field. My sheep were scattered in all the mountains and in every high hill. They were scattered over the face of the earth, and there was no one to seek them or to bring them back.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. “As I live,” says the Lord and Master, “because My sheep became as plunder, and as food for all the wild animals of the plain, because there were no shepherds with them, nor did My shepherds search for them, but fed themselves and not My flock” – because of this O shepherds, thus says the Lord and Master: “Behold, I am against the shepherds and shall require My sheep at their hands. I shall turn them away so they may not shepherd My sheep. The shepherds will not feed them anymore, for I shall deliver My sheep from their mouth; and they shall no longer be as food for them.”
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I shall search for My sheep and care for them. As a shepherd seeks his flock on a day when there is darkness, and when a cloud separates the sheep, thus I will drive them from every place where they were scattered in the day of cloud and darkness. And I shall bring them out from the Gentiles, gather them from the countries, and bring them into their land. I shall feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys, and in all the inhabited places of the land, I shall feed them in good pasture on the high mountain of Israel, and their folds will be there. They will lie down, and there they shall rest in good luxury, and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I shall feed My sheep and refresh them; and they will know that I am the Lord,” thus says the Lord and Master. “I shall seek the lost, bring back the misled, bind up the broken, strengthen the fallen, protect the strong, and feed them with judgment.”
These words of the prophet continue with their poetic power until in the 36th chapter where he begins to point towards renewal, a point echoing the 11th chapter where he noted that the land first given to Israel as an inheritance but later defiled is now filled with those who say among themselves, “Keep far away from the Lord. (For) This land was given to us as an inheritance…” Thus is their grip fastened tightly to a material that sifts through their hands, dried and infertile as their hardening hearts. For it was in this spirit of avarice rather than the spirit of the Lord that they forged their kingdoms; making for themselves an idol of nationhood those before them, the hostile nations surrounding their people. They became a people for themselves rather than a holy nation, and unlike the people of David’s inheritance in the spirit of the Living God.
So it seems that what the Lord intended then… is the same and has always been the same: The only inheritance that matters is neither land, nor progeny, nor wealth… though there may be some way in which each of these play a role. Were we to live as though our treasure were in heaven, as though our DNA were spiritual, and our nation a people of one heart; were we to see our eucharist as fortifying real, living people and enabling us to see our fellow sheep and follow our true shepherds; as making visible those among us living by the Spirit, and re-molded by the Lord to a likeness following recognizably after the image implanted within us – then we would be on the path of becoming a people of true inheritance. But all of us fall short of this…
And so the prophet speaks in a way that tells not just of God’s intent for ourselves, but also reveals something we might understand of God… that He is loving, good, and ever seeking to call us back to his fold… and it isn’t His heart that is cold, but our own. Thus, Ezekiel speaks as well of the Lord’s renewing His people in the 36th chapter:
“Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, when I am sanctified among you before their eyes. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your land. I shall sprinkle clean water on you and you will be cleansed from all your uncleanness, and I will also cleanse you from all your idols. I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall take the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I shall put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My requirements, and you will keep My judgments and do them. You will dwell in the land I gave to your fathers. You will be My people, and I shall be your God. I shall save you from all your uncleanness; and I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your practices which were not good, and you shall be angry in your own sight for your lawlessness and your abominations. Not for your sake will I do this,” says the Lord and Master. “As it shall become known to you, be ashamed and embarrassed of your ways, O house of Israel.”
Thus says, the Lord: “On the day in which I shall cleanse you from all your lawlessness, I shall also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the uninhabited regions will be rebuilt. The land which was destroyed will be cultivated, because it will no longer be desolate in the sight of all who pass by. Thus they will say, ‘That desolate land has become like a garden of luxury; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations yet remaining around you will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined cities and planted what was desolate…”
Thus says, the Lord: “For this I shall be sought by the house of Israel, that I might establish and multiply their people like sheep. As holy sheep, as the sheep of Jerusalem in her feasts, thus shall the desert cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”
And if this is our calling, then surely Ezekiel calls us to repentance this day as readily as he called the Hebrews in his own. By grace, let us renew our hearts in Him, and by this motion, renew and restore all Creation. Let us hold on to Christ and thereby hold on to who we were meant to be rather than whom we think we are. Let us become the people of inheritance, as we are this day.