Jeremiah 23:1-8

May 21, 2017
Joanna Harader

I 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.

In case you’re wondering, my ENFP version of hell is: “Every minute of the rest of your life has been scheduled for you – and it’s a long series of arbitrary, solitary tasks.” So, I think I made a pretty good career choice in terms of avoiding hell.

But 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.

To be fair to the “shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of [God’s] pasture,” this was a particularly difficult and complicated time to try to rule Israel.

If you have a map, here’s where you can follow along. The Assyrians had been the dominant power, and had been great enemies with Egypt. But the Assyrian power was waning as Babylon’s was increasing. So the Assyrians and the Egyptians joined forces against the Babylonians. And the Israelite kings in Jerusalem had to decide which foreign powers to appease. Who should they pay taxes to? Who should they align themselves with? Babylon was powerful, but you can see that Egypt was much closer . . .

Around 600 BCE, King Jehoiakim unwisely refused to pay taxes to Babylon, which led to all of the upper class leaders in Jerusalem being forced into exile in Babylon.

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

When we know the basics of the tricky political situation in which those “shepherds” found themselves, Jeremiah’s prophesy can seem harsh. Israel’s leaders might have been unwise, they might have lacked perception, they might have miscalculated the power dynamics of the global stage—but were their doings really “evil”?

If we just read the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, the judgment against the kings of Israel does, indeed, seem harsh. But let’s back up a chapter, shall we? Because “Woe to the shepherds” is not where this prophecy begins.

It begins a chapter earlier with God’s command to the King of Judah:

Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.”

God promises that all will go well for the king—and the country—if the king obeys this word, if the king acts with justice and righteousness. But if the king is unrighteous, enacts injustice, does violence to immigrants, mistreats orphans and widows . . . for the king that 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.

Now, I do not mean to be overly political here, but 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.

By all measures, he was an unjust ruler. A bad shepherd who destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture. Perhaps you have in mind your own bad shepherd. A leader (or two, or three) who you feel has ungodly priorities. Sometimes, the woeful shepherds are obvious.

But it’s not always so easy to tell the bad shepherds. Many times, a leader is not simply good or evil, just or unjust. Usually, leaders promote some policies that seem good and just and others that seem not so good and not so just. It can be complicated.

Many of you know that I serve on the steering committee for the jail alternatives research team of Justice Matters. Having looked closely at the issue of incarceration in general and the Douglas County jail expansion prospect in particular, I am convinced that the jail expansion the county leaders are proposing is an unjust project. (I’d be happy to give you the nitty gritty details over coffee some time if you’re interested.)

I also know that our county commissioners and even our jail personnel have done—are doing—many good things. They are being good shepherds in many respects, even as they lead us in what I believe is the wrong direction with the jail.

And I think of our denominational leaders in Mennonite Church USA who, I believe, are trying to follow Jesus, yet nonetheless have made some terrible leadership mistakes and implemented unjust policies—particularly related to lgbtq Mennonites.

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

Not many leaders are as thoroughly evil as King Shallum. And not many—I’d venture to say that not any—are purely righteous and wise and just.

Last week I shared from an interview where Martin Luther King Jr. talked about how God was faithful and present with him during a difficult time in jail. In that same interview, King shares a list of mistakes he has made in leading the civil rights movement—things he wished he had done differently.

Woe to the shepherds.”

These are actually terrifying words—or at least they should be—for anyone in a leadership position. Certainly, as a pastor, I carry this burden. Am I destroying and scattering the sheep God has called me to protect? Am I properly attending to the needs of the flock? I’m certainly not paneling my house with cedar and painting it with vermillion. But neither am I perfectly righteous and just and wise in my leadership.

Fortunately for us all, whether we are shepherds or sheep—or both,–just as Jeremiah’s prophecy does not begin with “woe to the shepherds,” it also does not end there.

It is true that the leadership of Judah has made mistakes and is not attending well to the people.

AND it is true that the people are not completely at the mercy of the shepherding skills of their earthly leaders.

God promises to take on the role of shepherd: to gather the people who are now in exile (thanks to their poor earthly shepherds) and bring them back to their fold where they can be fruitful and multiply, where they will live in safety.

God will attend to the people directly, and God will raise up righteous shepherds—shepherds who truly have the best interest of the flock at heart, shepherds who have godly priorities.

We are, as you might remember, in the midst of a worship series on God’s faithfulness. And here it is. God is faithful to provide good leadership for us despite the sometimes poor leadership offered by our earthly leaders.

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.