We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We are the people of God’s Earth. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the inclusion of land and water in God’s reign.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentcost), Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”
The long awaited king comes in glory, accompanied by God’s angels. He comes to judge “all the nations”—which includes “all people, Christian, Jews, and Gentiles” He comes as a shepherd, separating out his sheep from the goats, those who follow him in care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the ill, and those imprisoned and those who do not follow him. He comes as “the humble, not conquering, king of the triumph.” Indeed, he comes as one who identifies himself with “the least of these,” and now judges on their behalf according to the purposes and authority of his Father (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 493-95).
The sheep have followed Jesus in service to the least.
In themselves, the six actions listed—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison—are, as Carter notes, “traditional (Job 22:6-7; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Tobit 4:16-17; Sirach 7:32-36; Testament of Joseph 1:5-7). Jesus performs them to manifest God’s reign/empire or saving presence in a world of sinful oppression . . . He has taught disciples to perform them as they carry out their mission of manifesting God’s reign/empire.” It is significant that as compared with “dominant cultural practices,” these actions “are nonreciprocal and are concerned for the needs of the other, not the honor and social credit of the giver” (Ibid. p. 493). Remarkably, Jesus, as the powerful Son of Man, enacts the judgment which involves actions done to Jesus, the suffering servant. The righteous and the unrighteous alike are surprised by this strong identification of the king with the poor. Judgment of the people is based on whether they have taken on his role as their servant. The final verb of the judgment, as Carter notes, is “to take care,” which
“literally means ‘to serve.’ It is the verb by which Jesus sums up the mission of the Son of Man in 20:28 (‘not to be served but to serve’). It denotes actions by angels (4:11), and by women disciples (8:15, giving him food and drink, welcoming him; 27:55). Its cognate noun ‘servant’ names the identity of disciples as a marginal, low-status community in 20:26; 23:11 (cf. 24:45-51; 25; 14-30). The condemned have not lived as disciples. They have not recognized Jesus’ authority over their lives, despite calling him Lord” (cf.7:21-23) (Ibid., p. 497).
Followers of the king who is to be revealed in the remaining chapters of Matthew’s Gospel as the suffering servant of God will follow him in this service, and their service will be vindicated as such in the final judgment. Like those saints identified in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount, they are blessed by Jesus’ Father, and they will inherit the kingdom of God.
The needy have an ecological context, as they have a socio-political context.
Given the finality of this vision and this strong emphasis on the role of the servant, we could wish that care for the non-human creation was among the six actions in which the servant is to be encountered. As we have demonstrated in our comments on the lectionary for Year A, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is appropriately seen as the Lord, the servant of all Creation. The focus here would seem instead to be exclusively anthropological, typically so, one might lament: once more the needs of the human creature are privileged over those of the non-human creature. This focus is probably unavoidable, however, since the emphasis here is on Jesus: the human Jesus will be present in and among the representative human needy. And, in any case, these needy do have real social, political, and even ecological contexts. As Carter points out, the actions Jesus calls for are directed to meet the very real practical needs of people who were likely to be found
“among the majority (non-elite) population of a city such as Antioch, the likely place of Matthew’s audience. Among the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, the uneven and inadequate food and water supply, limited sewage disposal, the epidemics and infections fed by urine, feces, trash, corpses, decay, and insects, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt, disciples are to use their limited resources to meet these basic human needs of the poor” (Ibid. p. 495).
Among those needs, in short, are conditions that we would indeed describe today as “environmental,” conditions that impact in every way the quality of the people’s life. The servanthood of Jesus recognized by the righteous encompasses care for neighborhood as well as neighbor, to draw on another metaphor we have encountered in our readings and, finally, for all creation.
Indeed, above all, sheep need land, good pasture!
Attentive listeners to the first lesson read this Sunday will be prepared to receive this more inclusive, ecological understanding of human need. This human Jesus, servant king of the poor, our reading of Ezekiel 34 asserts, is also a shepherd, and indeed, not just any shepherd, but God, the true shepherd who addresses the need of his sheep in comprehensive scope:
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 (Ezekiel 34:12-14).
In this vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the preeminent need of the sheep, we note, is land: fertile, well-watered mountainsides where they can rest and feed “on rich pasture.” We have also encountered this metaphor earlier, in the Season of Easter. It’s inclusion here as part of the statement of the church’s eschatological conviction underscores the importance of care of creation in the future witness of the church; if Jesus the Good Shepherd is properly part of the vision of how God will bring all things to conclusion, not only his sheep, but also the pasture in which his sheep graze belongs to that vision.
Note the rest of Ezekiel 34 dealing with pollution.
That being said, we can regret all the more that the appointed reading from Ezekiel 34 does not include verses 17-19. The problem between the sheep, these verses make clear, is that not only do the fat sheep refuse to give place to the lean sheep (“you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” [v. 20]), but they harm the pasture as well: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” And they foul the water: “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (v. 18). The point is repeated for emphasis: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (v. 19). A contemporary analogy comes quickly to mind: the feed lots of industrial agriculture not only foul the air, water, and soil of the pasture, but drive out the environmentally-sensitive, small farmer, who struggles to compete in a market structured to favor the large scale operator. This is a vivid metaphor and very much to the ecological point: there are those who make place for others in which to live; and there are those who do not, who indeed on the contrary lay waste the space that others need for life. Social justice and ecological justice are clearly coupled to each other in this picture. God’s servant David was one of the former; so also, we confess, was Jesus. And so also, our readings insist, shall be those who follow him.
And, the promise of a natural covenant of peace
It will help to bring this insight forward in this Sunday’s sermon, if Ezekiel verses 17-19 are included in the reading, and the reader would do well to extend the reading further to include verses 25-31. The additional verses show why these servants of God do what they do; they do, quite simply, what God does; namely, they serve and keep the garden of Earth:
I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods secure. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 34:25-31).
We are the people of God’s pasture!
Allowing that in biblical ecology the banishment of wild animals does not mean their extermination, but rather their restoration to a place in which they also can live in peace, this covenanting God promises to restore all creatures to their appointed place in the creation. God will sustain them there, in accordance with God’s purposes, in the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). There, we might imagine, they will join the angels of God in the hymn of praise appointed as the psalm for this Sunday—a truly ecologically sensitive hymn, in the view of one commentator (see Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, pp. 135-36). Thus does the year end with all God’s creatures, saints and servants, joining in praise of their Creator and his Servant: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” (Psalm 95:6-7).
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.