This coming Sunday, the fourth of Easter, is called by us Good Shepherd Sunday, because of the Gospel from Saint John. It is usual for us on Good Shepherd Sunday to pray for our shepherds in the Church hierarchy, to thank God for the good men who have inspired us and done us much good, and to pray for those men who have been more unhelpful, have caused grave harm to many in Church, and sadly continue to do so. In all of this, we keep an eye on the Good Shepherd Himself, remembering why we are Catholics, and why we continue to come to Mass. Here is something seen recently on social media:
The hierarchy is absolutely essential, for the elders of the Church hand on her traditions and, as priests of the New Covenant, administer the cult of the Sacraments, and especially the Holy Mass. But they are always ever standing in the shoes of the Good Shepherd, and hardly ever fill those shoes well. Let us pray for our priests, and let us pray for Vocations to the priesthood, young men, good and holy, to take up the role of the Good Shepherd for a new generation of Catholics.
It is rather a joke in the Western world that Catholic priests are corrupt, and for some time now, even bishops have been held by Catholics in grave suspicion, for one reason or another. Whether or not there is any basis for such suspicions, it seems almost inevitable that some wretched men will find a way to abuse their authority, and lead people astray. We needn’t look any further than the Holy Bible itself, which certainly aggrandises the Hebrew priesthood (men only) and exalts these priests of the family of Aaron, brother of Moses. They are the Aaronites, and no individual from any other family is permitted to perform priestly functions in the tabernacle and the Temples of the Hebrew nation. That type of privilege is not difficult to exploit, and I now move to the prophet Ezechiel, through whom and through the other prophets God scolded the priests for failing the people. So, chapter thirty-four.
“Word came to me from the Lord: Now, son of man, prophesy doom to the rulers of Israel, the shepherds of my flock. This be thy message from the Lord God: Out upon Israel’s shepherds, that had a flock to feed, and fed none but themselves; the milk drank, the wool wore, the fat lambs slaughtered, but pastured these sheep of Mine never at all! The wasted frame went unnourished, the sick unhealed; nor bound they the broken limb, nor brought strayed sheep home, nor lost sheep found; force and constraint were all the governance they knew. So My sheep fell a-wandering, that shepherd had none; every wild beast fell a-preying on them, and they scattered far and wide. All over the mountains they strayed, all over the high hills were scattered, this flock of Mine, and no search was made for them, no search at all.”Ezechiel, 34: 1-6
Now, remember that our Lord styled Himself the Son of Man, setting Himself therefore square in the tradition of the prophets Ezechiel and Daniel. He often enough bring up themes that these prophets began, but His authority (as observed by the Gospels) was obviously far greater than that of the rulers of the people in His time. And the people knew it, and rejoiced in it. Christ’s complaint against the priests and scribes of His own time is similar to Ezechiel’s. The following curse or doom of God on the priests Ezechiel was addressing is therefore similar to that of Christ Himself when He said, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, still murdering the prophets, and stoning the messengers that are sent to thee, how often have I been ready to gather thy children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings; and thou didst refuse it! Behold, your house is left to you, a house uninhabited. Believe me, you shall see nothing of me henceforward, until the time when you will be saying, Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.‘ (Gospel of S. Matthew, 23: 37-39)
“This doom, then, the Lord pronounces on yonder shepherds: As I am a living God, I will have a reckoning for sheep of Mine carried off, sheep of Mine the wild beasts have preyed on, while they went all untended, with shepherds that would not go in search of them, shepherds that no flock would feed, but themselves only. A word, shepherds, for your hearing, a message from the Lord God: Out upon yonder shepherds! I will hold them answerable for the flock entrusted to them, and they shall have charge of it no more, feed themselves out of its revenues no more. From their greedy power I will rescue it; no longer shall it be their prey.”Ezechiel, 34: 7-10
And here comes the basis for Christ’s own Good Shepherd discourse (Gospel of S. John, 10), for God had a plan to shepherd His people in person. He had appointed men and they had failed him. Ezechiel doesn’t mean only priests; he meant the rulers of the people, kings and nobility, as well. Note when Ezechiel states that a dark mist had fallen upon the sheep of God’s pasture, because of the bad influence of their rulers. This would now be undone by the light of Christ. Remember when Saint Zacharias, the father of Saint John the Baptist, when he became aware of the arrival of the Messiah, sang that, ‘Such is the merciful kindness of our God, which has bidden Him come to us, like a dawning from on high, to give light to those who live in darkness, in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Gospel of S. Luke, 1: 78-79) The Gospels tend to be about light shining in the darkness, and baptism is about enlightening the newly baptised.
“This is what the Lord God says: I mean to go looking for this flock of mine, search it out for Myself. As a shepherd, when he finds his flock scattered all about him, goes looking for his sheep, so will I go looking for these sheep of Mine, rescue them from all the nooks into which they have strayed when the dark mist fell upon them. Rescued from every kingdom, recovered from every land, I will bring them back to their own country; they shall have pasture on the hill-sides of Israel, by its watercourses, in the resting-places of their home. Yes, I will lead them out into fair pastures, the high mountains of Israel shall be their feeding-ground, the mountains of Israel, with soft grass for them to rest on, rich feed for them to graze. Food and rest, says the Lord God, both these I will give to my flock. The lost sheep I will find, the strayed sheep I will bring home again; bind up the broken limb, nourish the wasted frame, keep the well-fed and the sturdy free from harm; they shall have a true shepherd at last. And what of you, My flock? I mean to do justice, the Lord God says, among the beasts themselves, give redress against the rams and the buck-goats.”Ezechiel, 34: 11-17
The best part of this chapter of the prophecy of Ezechiel is the continuation of this Messianic passage. Yes, God would come Himself, to shepherd his flock in person. But also, He would put the flock in the charge of one shepherd, and that shepherd would be King David, or a David-like person, probably a descendant of the King. Passages like this created the expectation that the Messiah-to-come would be a descendant of David. And, as we know, Christ was not only a descendant of David, because of Mary His Mother, but that He was well-known to be a descendant of David. It was both this claim of His to the ancient Hebrew royal family and His claim to be the Messiah that made Him a threat to the political status quo in His time – from his infancy, when Herod tried to kill Him, to His trial before Pilate, when the priests used His royal ties to force Pilate to have Him executed.
“This is what the Lord God says: I mean to see justice done between fat beast and lean. Thrust back with side and shoulder, gored with the horn, all the weaker of them have been driven away; but now I mean to protect this flock of Mine against your greed, give beast redress against its fellow… They shall have a single shepherd to tend all of them now; who should tend them but my servant David? He shall be their shepherd, and I, the Lord, will be their God, now that he rules them on earth; such is My divine promise to them. Such a covenant I will make as shall grant them security; beasts of prey there shall be none, safe resting, now, in the desert, safe sleeping in the woods; on My hill-sides they shall dwell, a blessed people in a blessed home, rain in its season fall on them, and blessings all the while. Wild trees their fruit, the earth its crops shall afford; undisturbed they shall dwell on their own lands, acknowledging My power at last, My power that severed strap of yoke, rescued them from the tyrant’s hand. Forgotten, the enemies that despoiled, the wild beasts that preyed on them; they will live sheltered from all alarms. Once more their renown shall burgeon; never again the land starve with drought, never the alien’s taunts be heard.”Ezechiel, 34: 20-29
Whose greed would God wish to protect His sheep from? Worldly leaders, worldly rulers, kings and priests, naturally. God would protect His own from abuse. Then he speaks of the new covenant that He would make with them, when they had been shepherded by the new David – a new covenant with endless blessing attached to it. These Messianic segments in prophecies such as of Isaias and here are so dreamy. In a sense, we are still waiting for the accomplishment of this promise of God’s. The chapter ends with the touching claim of God over His flock, His beloved. ‘Flocks of MY pasturing, flocks of MINE.’
“None shall doubt that I, the Lord their God, am at their side, and they are My own people, the race of Israel, the Lord God says. Flock of Mine, the Lord God says, flock of My pasturing, you are but men, yet I, the Lord, am your God.“Ezechiel, 34: 30-31