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Longing for Good News about Bad Shepherds

Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You have not attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord. I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The Lord Is Our Righteousness. Jeremiah 23:1-6, CEB

When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” —Luke 23:33-43, CEB

It's Election Day +10, and it is almost Sabbath. Also, I am slated to preach this week, and I am wondering how.

I will be up front, rather than leaving the reader to infer the obvious: I was disappointed with the results of the presidential election. Devastated, actually. Not that the candidate for whom I voted embodied all my hopes and wishes for a president (though she embodied many of them), but rather because, as so many have expressed, the outcome seemed to be a choosing of our worst as humans — either an outright affirmation of racism, sexism, xenophobia (you know the list), or a passive lack of concern in the face of other voting priorities.

So, as I approached my preaching assignment this week and read the assigned texts, I could not help but laugh a little at the on-point lectionary selection. Jeremiah’s words about bad shepherds leapt off the page in one of those rare, “Of course the Bible speaks to contemporary life!” moments. Preaching from this text, it seemed, would be almost too easy. Let us listen to the prophet again:

Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You have not attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord.

Ah, yes, a prophetic Thus-says-the-Lord pronouncement of woe on bad shepherds — the bad kings and bad priests, whose failure to do justice and love mercy (not to mention walk humbly) is the cause of the exilic scattering of the people of Israel.

Well, thanks be to God. I have got a list in my head of bad shepherds that I would like to pronounce woe on this year. For a brief moment, I considered the possibility of reading this passage aloud a couple more times as a homily in itself and pronouncing, “Enough said.”

But to stop at woeful finger-pointing (even if prophetically warranted) would not do justice to this carefully curated set of lectionary texts. We have come to the end of a church year, and before we begin again in the darkness of Advent expectation next week, we first pause at the majestic culmination of the lectionary, the week traditionally called “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.”

In this liturgical context, Jeremiah’s critique of bad shepherds is meant to point us ultimately to the capital-G--Good Shepherd and his enthronement as the just king who rules in righteousness, the fulfillment of messianic hopes, a shoot raised up for David’s sake, who will gather all those who have been scattered and exiled and excluded until now.

Hence, Jeremiah’s prophetic vision of a righteous Shepherd-King from David’s line is tied together with Zechariah’s song of salvation from Luke’s opening chapter, Paul’s poem of a Cosmic Christ, and finally a crucifixion scene from Luke’s Passion narrative.

Even if we are only half listening, it is hard to miss the lectionary’s editorializing: The enthronement of this hoped-for Good Shepherd-King happens . . . on a Roman cross, to the “King of the Jews.”

For those used to the rhythms of the Christian seasons, it is startling to find ourselves brought to a crucifixion scene in the middle of November.

But somehow, this particular November, I find myself feeling just a bit more empathy toward the followers of Jesus on that awful Friday. The one in whom they had hoped (even if cautiously or half-heartedly) has been utterly defeated. Everything they fear and despise as evil and oppressive has apparently won the day. Faith in a good future has taken a serious blow.

This November context for a cross scene comes nuanced differently for me than the Passion Week experience to which I have become accustomed. In this context, I arrive at this story near the end of 2016 with a heightened sense of frustration and anger toward bad shepherds, with waves of soul-crushing anxiety and hopelessness, with nagging suspicions that love, welcome, justice, compassion — those things so core to the Gospel as I understand it — that these, it seems, have been rejected and voted down repeatedly this year.

I come to these texts longing for a word of good news, but to be honest, also with some faltering reservations; for if this Christian cross-story offers only a passive, submissive, even spiritualized acquiescence to the bad shepherds, I fear I may find myself even further discouraged, perhaps even turning to look elsewhere for good news.

Likely, it is due to this internal unease that I notice within this Gospel scene itself, a sort of crossroads on display. Luke’s two convicts on either side of Jesus seem to embody two possible responses to this Jesus story.

Importantly, the words from these two convicts are framed as responses to Jesus’ key moment on the cross, his offer of forgiveness for his enemies. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This prayer is Jesus’ manifesto — the forgiveness of sins, which signals the restoration of the basileia, the kingdom of peace.

The first convict follows the leaders, the Roman soldiers, and the inscription above the cross, employing mockery and derision in response. “Are you not the Messiah, the Christ? Save yourself — and us!”

Social science lenses help us hear this ironic mocking as the culmination of what has been going on since Jesus’ arrest, the attempt by the powerful to dismantle Jesus’ status or public honor. As one whom the people revered, Jesus’ outsized status was a source of grave concern for the authorities who feared the people, and this honor status needed to be knocked down — thus the mock trial, the beating, and the making fun.

Such a turn to ironic derision, or its modern cousin sarcasm, is the response we might call cynicism.

“This story you are selling, Jesus, is too good to be true. You must have an angle somewhere. All this forgiveness is just for show, to attract attention — or maybe it is just pathetic weakness because you have no other option.”

“Corruption always wins. Power, self-interest, appealing to people’s worst — that is what actually works. Leave the peace and love stuff to the naive and the weak.”

Cynicism. It is a bit dark, sure, but it is also safe. You cannot be disappointed when expectations are so low. In the end, I would rather be the one who gets to say, “I told you so.”

The other convict is the one usually held up as hero, the one who gets it. However, if we listen closely, we may be surprised at the precise content of his faith. “This man,” he counters, “has done nothing wrong.”

Far from a pious assent to Jesus’ “sinless” moral perfection, this statement is a real-word insistence that Jesus’ execution is unjust for the simple reason that Jesus has not acted criminally. Jesus is an innocent victim of an unholy collusion of temple and empire.

“But that is just the point!” I hear the cynical convict in my head responding. The system is rigged, the world is broken, people cannot be trusted, and “hope” is naive.

Still, the convicted convict persists: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

How many times have we heard this statement framed in terms of a deathbed conversion, the paradigmatic reminder that it is never too late to accept Jesus as one’s savior?

But I do not hear anything in this exchange that suggests the man is expressing faith in Jesus. Rather, I hear this as a Jewish convict doubling down on his faith in the God of Israel.

In resistance to the hopeless cynicism that the cross elicits, this second man sees an unjust execution of the Innocent One, yes; but his response is stubbornly — faithfully — to insist that God will not let this violent injustice, this moral catastrophe, have the last word. No, the God of Israel, the God of History will yet make this right.

In fact, it is through this very Innocent One that the convict dares to hope that God will usher in the Basileia, the Reign of Peace and Justice/Righteousness. So remember me, Jesus, in that kingdom.

Two dying men see the same things: a startling act of forgiveness and a violent, unjust cross. For one, this is the dismantling of meaning and the only response left is cynicism; for the other, this is the moment to double down on hope in a good God who will not let all this go unredeemed and unresolved.

I’m not sure what makes the difference. There are lots of days where the cynicism makes more sense to me.

But deep down, I know my soul longs for the hopeful response, the faithful response.

Deep down, I want the steady trust that led Martin Luther King, Jr. to insist that while “the arc of the moral universe is long, it [surely] bends toward justice.”

Deep down, I need Jesus’ assurance that the Kingdom of God is indeed like a mustard seed which begins as the tiniest of seeds but grows to be a tree in which the birds can come to rest.

To be sure, longing for hope is not an action plan, not an agenda — and there is so much to be done, to be acted upon, in the world to resist injustice and hate and abuse of power, to join God in gathering the scattered, the exiled, the hopeless.

But this agenda of God, I believe, is built on a foundation of hope — a steady, faithful longing for the kingdom of God.

And some days, especially these November days, choosing such a hopeful longing may be victory enough.

 

Vaughn Nelson is Pastor for Discipleship and Nurture at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / constantin jurcut

 

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