The Rule of the Shepherd-King

Read Jeremiah 23.1-6 John 18.33-37

These Bible readings are about two very different kinds of leaders. Jeremiah sends out a warning to those religious and political leaders who are leading people astray. The Gospel of John shows us Pilate and Jesus, two leaders of a very different sort, talking about what it means to be a king, a leader over the people.

Good leadership is something we desperately need in the church, and in our society as a whole. We are growing increasingly frustrated with bad leadership; a lot of people are giving up on the community, the church, and just trying to make ends meet for themselves.

Jeremiah writes, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter my sheep.” God is sending out a warning, through Jeremiah, to all those leaders who are more concerned about personal gain and position than about leading Israel in God’s ways. There are a lot of “bad shepherds” around who fail to watch over the flock, who are more caught up in their own careers than in the lives of their people. Israel is being torn away from its covenant with God, and the leaders are standing idly by, watching it happen, instead of watching over the people.

Sometimes I wonder how people get hooked into following after bad shepherds. I think there’s a part inside all of us that desperately cries out for direction, for meaning, for guidance. If someone comes along who has the qualities of a strong leader, someone who promises to fill this emptiness inside of us, we are tempted to follow even before we know where the leader is taking us. 

Jeremiah does not leave us only with the warning for bad shepherds, but points to the hope that God will restore Israel, that a Good Shepherd will come. We see this Good Shepherd in Jesus. When Pilate asked him if he had come to be king of the Jews, Jesus replies with something like, “Well, yes and no.” I’ve come to be king, but it’s not the sort of king you would expect. I don’t have a kingdom to protect by force or violence. My kingdom is the truth. I don’t have any turf, or self-interest that my followers have to guard.

In Jesus and Pilate, we have two very different leaders, with two very “different agendas,” you might say. Pilate is the person put in charge of the Jewish territory by the Roman government. This wouldn’t have been a very honorable position. Pilate no doubt wanted to climb the political ladder. To do that, he had to keep his nose clean. He wouldn’t have wanted a blemish on his record. Far from caring for the people, Pilate seems most concerned with protecting his own career, even if it means sending an innocent man to his death. Pilate is a good example of what Jeremiah points to as a bad shepherd.

Then, there’s Jesus. Jesus is willing to sacrifice himself for others rather than get all that he can and keep it to himself. Jesus is leader of a different sort. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. He isn’t looking out for self-interest. He isn’t protecting his turf. He doesn’t have to prove himself by force or violence. He is the Good Shepherd who comes to restore the people to God.

“My kingdom is not of this world, “says Jesus. Some people have read this line and assumed this means that Christians should not get involved in politics. Some take it even further and say you should have as little to do with the world as you can. Parents feel compelled to take their children out of public schools, to restrict their contacts with others, to visit with and get to know only those who share your interests and faith. Some respond to this passage by trying to get out of the world and live in a separate kingdom, off to themselves.

I can appreciate how people, and especially parents, have the desire to create a safe world for their children. The trouble is, however, that God’s kingdom comes to us in the midst of this messy world. We are called not to go off by ourselves, but to bring our faith, our light to the darkness in the world.

Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” God’s kingdom is not confined to this world, but through Christ, God’s kingdom meets our world. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray that God might continue to meet us on earth and through us, make the world a better place to live.

This may seem like a pretty big order, and it is. We could never do it on our own. None of us alone can be the Good Shepherd, able to feed and watch over all the sheep. But we don’t have to. Christ feeds us. Christ watches over us. Christ, who is our shepherd king, leads us in pleasant pastures, helps us sleep peaceable even though we have fears. God leads us and feeds us. Now and forevermore.

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