Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
Whenever a new monarch has come to power throughout history, people have asked, What kind of king (or queen) will this be? Today we celebrate a king; for today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the reign of Christ. It seems appropriate for us to ask, What kind of king is Jesus? Scripture shows us that Jesus is an unusual kind of king—a shepherd king, much like his ancestor David.
What does that mean? It means that Jesus, in all his glory, lays aside a crown and picks up a shepherd’s crook. In our Old Testament text, Ezekiel reports that God himself will search for his sheep and seek them out. It is interesting that God must seek out his sheep because they have been scattered “on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Sheep, at the best of times, have very poor eyesight. On a foggy day, they have little chance of finding their way without some guidance. Are we so different from these sheep? We, too, have a tendency to be very shortsighted when it comes to staying on the path we should follow. Sometimes, even with our good intentions, the storms of life scatter us. The good news is that Jesus is still a shepherd king today. Jesus still seeks us out, wherever we may have wandered, to bring us back to the meadow where we can be safe under Jesus’ watch.
As the shepherd finds the sheep, he guides them to green meadows where food and water are plentiful. The shepherd provides for them all that they need. In Ezekiel 34:15-16, God describes this in detail: “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 361 bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” A shepherd does so much more for his sheep than simply turning them loose in a hayfield. The shepherd makes sure that they have plenty of rest and goes after the lost sheep, collecting those who have strayed. The shepherd heals those who are hurting and builds up those who are frail. What a promise! Whatever our needs, our shepherd king is already working to meet them.
God’s provision is not always what we are looking for, or even what we think we need. The verse we read just a moment ago does not actually end there. It goes on to say, “But the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Sometimes, the shepherd must act as judge, separating the flock. This seems harsh, but it is the shepherd’s love that causes action. “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.” There are times when the shepherd must guide and lead the sheep along a path they do not wish to follow, in order to make things right for the rest of the flock.
Ezekiel’s words foreshadow today’s New Testament passage in which Jesus tells of his return. Here, the king is in full regalia, shining in glory, sitting on a throne surrounded by all his angels. While Matthew’s image of the king differs from the shepherd of Ezekiel, the king’s actions are the same. The king sorts out the nations of the world, putting some to the right, and others to the left. The criteria for the sorting is also the same. Those who have butted their way through life without regard to the people being pushed away by their actions are chastised. The sheep, those loyal followers of the king, have followed the king’s lead without even realizing that is what they were doing. Their love for the one who cares for them has led them to imitation. Thus, they ask, “Lord, when did we feed you or give you something to drink? When did we ever visit you in the hospital or in jail? When did we provide a home or clothes for you?” The king answers, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The shepherd king leads by example. Just as Jesus spent his time on earth with those society looked down upon, with those who most needed him, Jesus expects his sheep to do the same. Jesus walks along that path and waits for them to follow. This shepherd is not content for his sheep to simply be like other sheep. They have more potential, and so part of his feeding them involves leading them to a truer understanding of who they are and to whom they belong. Only those sheep who truly know their shepherd’s nature are rewarded; only those citizens who honor the king by loving other people will inherit the kingdom God has prepared for them.
And so, we come back to our question: What kind of king is Jesus? Jesus is a king who will seek us out where we are, a king who provides for our every need, a king who corrects us and guides us along the path we must follow. Jesus is a shepherd king who seeks us, feeds us, and leads us so that we can prosper. It is up to us to decide what kind of sheep—what kind of citizens of God’s kingdom—we will be.