On Shepherds and Being Sheep

Maryhill_Museum_Romanian_crown_7-11I am a total sucker for those articles people sometimes post on Facebook about Meyers-Briggs types—the personality test. You know, “Where you should live based on your Myers-Briggs type” or “What famous person shares your type?” This week, a friend posted “The definition of hell for different Myers-Briggs types.”

My friend shared this post to particularly elicit sympathy for ENTJs—people who are extroverted and intuitive and thinking and like things to be well-organized–whose version of hell is: “Somebody is wrong, and they’re directing a large group of people! You can’t do anything about it and will have to obey whatever inefficient policies they decide to implement.”

Which, as it turns out, is quite apropos to our scripture this morning. Perhaps Jeremiah was an ENTJ. He is definitely having a difficult time accepting the inept leadership of Israel. He proclaims God’s judgment of the kings who have not properly attended to their people. They were wrong, and ultimately they directed a large group of people to disaster.

This “woe to the shepherds” in Jeremiah 23 needs to be read in the context of the prophecy’s beginning in chapter 22. There, God promises that all will go well for the king—and the country—if the king acts “with justice and righteousness.” But if the king is unrighteous, enacts injustice, does violence to immigrants, mistreats orphans and widows . . . if the king does not attend to the most vulnerable under his care, it will not go well.

In this prophecy, King Josiah is praised for doing justice and righteousness, for judging the cause of the poor and the needy. But his son, Shallum, has turned from his father’s path:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14 who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15 Are you a king
because you compete in cedar? . . .
Your eyes and heart
    are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

This is a pretty clear warning about the damage that can be done by leaders who care more about their own wealth and status than they do about attending to the vulnerable of the land. The “woe” proclaimed by Jeremiah against national leadership is not just about unwise policies, innocent mistakes; it is about ungodly priorities.

While it can be difficult to determine a leader’s motives, to truly understand their internal reasoning, it’s actually not that hard to assess priorities:

  • Where do they want to put our money?
  • Who would their proposed policies benefit? Who would the policies hurt?
  • Are they seeking to lead in the way of peace?
  • What themes are repeated in their speeches and writings?

Shallum’s priorities are pretty evident. He spent money on a luxurious house for himself, he created unjust policies that did not protect the rights of workers; he shed blood and led the nation into violence. I don’t know what he talked about in his speeches. Maybe how many people showed up to listen to his speeches.

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

The truth is that, even for those of us who are not ENTJs, following someone who is wrong and directing a large group of people is pretty hard to take. There are many things going on at the national level right now that should concern us as followers of Christ:

  • we want to work for peace, and our leaders (now and in the past) build up the military and drop bombs to try to solve problem;
  • we want to welcome the stranger, and our leaders talk about building walls and creating laws to keep people out;
  • we want to care for the poor and homeless and sick in our communities and there are health care bills and tax code changes proposed that would put more money in the pockets of the already wealthy and further diminish the lives of those in need.

It is, at times, heartbreaking, to have leaders who head in the exact opposite direction than we believe God wants us to go; heartbreaking to watch shepherds destroy and scatter the sheep.

But, while we are sheep metaphorically, we are not sheep in actuality. We are people who can make spiritual and political choices. Choices about who and how to follow.

We may not be able to control who shepherds our country, our state, our county, our denomination, but we can control who shepherds our lives.

We can choose to follow the righteous One, the holy One, the One who acts with justice and longs to gather us in.


This post is excerpted from a sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-8. 

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2 thoughts on “On Shepherds and Being Sheep

  1. Choosing to rise above the temporal circumstances, just as those people did under King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” who was actually a pretty crappy, unethical, murderous, wealthy individual when all was said and done. Reading and contemplating Scripture is always enlightening about how to deal with unpleasantness in our lives, when things are not going the way we believe they should be going. God is still in control, and He still uses people who are far from perfect to accomplish His will.

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