Updated: Feb 3
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Omitted: [17 “As for you, My flock, thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats. 18 Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? 19 As for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet and drink what you foul with your feet!’” ]
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
This is the Old Testament selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for Year A, Proper 29, the last Sunday of Pentecost. It will next be read aloud in church on Sunday, November 26, 2017. As the last Sunday of Pentecost, it is recognized as Christ the King Sunday. Verses 17 through 19 are omitted from the service reading, but I have been included in the presentation above because they add depth to understanding fat sheep. This is important as it prophesies the coming of Jesus the Messiah, after God will gather the scattered sheep (Israelites and Jews) from their lost places (Babylon and beyond), for him to Shepherd.
This reading’s lead-in (verses 1-10, which are not read aloud) has the title “Prophecy against the Shepherds of Israel,” as the title that appears on the Bible Gateway website, specifically for the New American Standard Bible translation. For the verses shown above, the title changes to “The Restoration of Israel.” The omitted verses lean more towards the main title, rather than about God restoring the chaos caused by bad shepherds. Still, in the beginning and at the start of these verses, Ezekiel is continuing what he stated in verse 1: “The word of the Lord came to me,” which is a clear statement of God speaking through a Prophet.
After reading these verses of God searching for his lost sheep, I recalled an episode of the reality TV show “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” Two of the ranchers had to go to find cattle that had become lost after freezing weather had come in, and a larger storm was to follow that one. The cattle were in danger being on frozen tundra, unable to forge swollen and freezing rivers.
Here is a video clip.
This video is just a portion of what the episode covers; but where someone says the cows get scared and hide under a cedar tree, it becomes clear that the cattle kind of like their new stomping grounds. They would rather hide in fear, than come out and say, “Here we are. So glad you found us!”
The scattered cattle have to be rounded up and headed back to their respective ranches, or they would happily stay where they were … lost … until a predator killed them for dinner or winter kept them from finding any food. Either way, the out of place cattle would end up dead. The point of my bringing up these cattle is they can then become a parallel for the sheep in this reading, as cattle and sheep are both dumb animals that have a hard time knowing what’s good for them … and what’s evil. So they need a herder.
Imagining that the scattered sheep in the scenario spoken of by Ezekiel, for God, are like those lost cattle on a cable show, it becomes easier to see how the scattered sheep probably were not baa-ing for saving. After “the days of clouds and thick darkness,” they probably did the best they could and grazed wherever they could. For a lost grazer, anywhere can be called home.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the sheep from the sheep. They blend in so well.
So, when God spoke and said, “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries,” the lost sheep were probably allowing foreign “people” to be their shepherds, and they had gotten used to the vegetation of foreign “countries.” They acquired a taste for strange people and places. However, God had a plan for them: find them; bring them back to the fold; and have them be led by His “servant David,” which means Jesus (of the Bethlehem heritage).
Reading this prophecy of Ezekiel made me think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is not the Gospel reading that will accompany this Old Testament reading. (I know because I checked.) The Gospel of Proper 29 is Matthew 25:31-46 and it is a perfect fit for a reading with the title that says it is “against shepherds.” It ties into the Christ the King theme, but has Christ separating the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. While Ezekiel 34 feeds that theme, Luke 15:11-32 (the parable of the prodigal son) deals with the aspect of foreign people and foreign countries.
That parable deals with the prodigal son becoming lost, with the end of the story being the celebration of the lost being found – “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32) As this reading from Ezekiel is about finding lost sheep, it projects God as if He were planning on going out and selectively choosing which sheep to be found. In an anthropomorphic story, it appears that God lost a little of his All-Knowing Mind and All-Seeing Eye.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the father allows his son to become lost and does nothing to go find him. The father does not send spies to keep up on his son’s whereabouts. It is through that lens of seeing the Father allowing the lost to be lost that this Ezekiel reading becomes more powerful. The assumption that God would hunt for lost sheep should be inverted, such that God will make it possible for the sheep to find Him.
In the translation above, including the omitted verses and all coming from the New American Standard Bible version, the word repeated the most times (in variations of usage) is “feed.” It appears six times in the NASB translation, while the actual Hebrew text shows seven times (in verses 11-24). The translation above, “they must eat,” is the missing time. This repetition is significant, especially when “fat” (2x) and “lean” (1x) are allusions to how much the lost sheep have been fed. This focus on food (which implies grass, upon which sheep graze) becomes an overall statement about how God will search for His lost sheep.
Rather than God Himself taking physical form and hunting for lost livestock (“I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out”), the lost will be found by the Word of God. That is the food that will remain present among the sheep, no matter where they roam. God first sent manna as the food for the Spirit of the Israelites. They forever remembered being found by God in the breaking of bread at Passover. When Jesus said, “eat this [bread] in remembrance of me,” the meaning is the food that leads one back to God.
Ezekiel was one of those who would serve God and seek the lost sheep, to return them to the foal. Still, the feed of Israel is the Holy Scriptures, orally recited from memory, as well as written onto scrolls and kept safely secured. That history of promise and all the Laws of the Covenant, with all the songs of praise and prophecies of doom (the “clouds and thick darkness”), that IS the “rich pasture on the mountains of Israel” from which the lost sheep can always feed.
Because God said through Ezekiel that “I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” and “I will judge between sheep and sheep,” one can assume that all of the lost sheep reclaimed will have been fed by God. Some will be fed more than others, with some fed on pure pasture and clean water, while others are left ‘the crumbs off that tableland’. The omitted verses (17-19) state how some of the sheep will walk all over the grass the others graze from and then drink from clean waters, before muddying the streams by walking through that water. This states the quality of the feed (the graze) the lost sheep will have available to them, with the rams taking the best and leaving the other sheep the rest.
In the parable of the prodigal son, it was food that brought him back home. Sure, he had taken his inheritance and squandered it in a foreign country; but he was willing to hire himself out to one individual of that country (probably another lost sheep), rather than consider going home and be seen as a loser. In the midst of a famine that befell that land, the prodigal son fed the scraps from his foreign master’s table to the swine, while he was starved. It was then the memory of the plentiful food that was given to the lowest of his father’s hired hands and the livestock that motivated the lost son to go home.
In the Ezekiel reading, we hear God saying: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” In the parable of the prodigal son, we find of the son’s decision to admit his sins and beg to taken back as a hired hand, led to the father seeing his return. The son had found his way back home, to the father’s delight.
We read, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20) This says that repentance will be the that which will find, bring back, mend, and strengthen the lost. Those who repent will be those who were lost but then were found. Their repentance will have come from the feed of Scripture, which promises justice.
It is important to see this connection between being fed the Word of God. This Word is ignored by those of foreign countries, who worship other gods and have no concept of resurrection and a lost soul’s return to be with God the Father. Thus, it is the sheep metaphor that represents those of Judaic-Christian heritage and tradition. The sheep are those who graze upon the Word of God. However, there are those among the sheep that dilute the words of God, for the purpose of getting themselves fat, while the other sheep get lean.
The fat sheep are then the bad (or false) shepherds, who were those who lost the Promised Land and then came back to Jerusalem as the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and Temple priests. They offered sacrificed to God as the high and mighty (the fat and the strong), while keeping for themselves the best parts (the good pastures) and leaving the others the guilt (tread upon pastures). They amended the laws (the clear waters) to suit their needs, while forcing (pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted) the rest to comply.
When God said, “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep;” adding, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd,” this means more than God sending Jesus (a descendant of the House of David, through Jesse) to Jerusalem. Jesus was one in a line of Holy Prophets who kept the food of Scripture pure, and the spirit of the Word clean. However, Jesus Christ sired a line of Apostles in his name.
This means the judgment between “sheep and sheep” is determined by whose soul appears at the doorsteps of Heaven. Are they the souls of sheep who were shepherded there by the Mind of Christ? Or, are they the souls of those shepherded by the brains of men, who did nothing to lead another sheep’s soul home to God? Were they sheep who had fun being with foreign people and the ways of foreign countries? Or, were they afraid of their absence from the LORD, hiding under trees, before they were found by an Apostle and herded to holy use?
In the parable of the prodigal son, the son proclaimed, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” To have “sinned against heaven” means a confession for having allowed the flesh between the earholes (the Big Brain) to guide him selfishly. He had wanted his inheritance in advance, which he then squandered. He understood that he had done nothing to deserve a return home to Heaven, to be again with the father as his son.
The prodigal son had intended on asking his father if he would take him as a hired hand; but because the father went to meet the son, before he could make that request, the father embraced the son with love. That symbolism is God entering into the heart of the wayward son in a union that was the desire of the wayward son. Once that presence was in the heart, the father ordered his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.” (Luke 15:22)
That “best robe” was the wedding gown of marriage. We have read of it in other parables. The ensuing celebration and feast was the marriage banquet of the sheep to the Father, as an Apostle, as a Saint. It was that holy union that made the return to Heaven possible, as the judgment of the Father was to recognize a sheep that had been led back home by its having the Good Shepherd within.
This is how one should read the last verse, where it says “I will judge between sheep and sheep.” As those who profess to be Christians, we are all sheep on this earth. In order to gain entrance into the Spiritual realm of the Father, we have to determine what kind of sheep we are: Are we the sheep who serve God, through the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Christ, being led by the Good Shepherd? Or, are we the sheep who serve self, who trample underfoot the Word and weaken the spirit of faith in others, being led by Satan?
It is possible to read all Scripture in a vacuum and reach a full understanding of what this reading from Ezekiel means. When we link its meaning to other Scripture, that understanding compounds greatly.
It is the presence of God in one’s heart that seeks understanding – one wants not to be lost. It is the Christ Mind that whispers to seek the same message of one passage to be mirrored in many others. The truth of meaning is how one ceases doubting and finds faith. It takes repentance to seek to be found and worthy of becoming a hired hand for God.
This will become clearer when one reads the accompanying Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46. That one has the title “Judgement.”