- First Reading Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
- Psalm 100:1-5
- Second Reading Ephesians 1:15-23
- Gospel Matthew 25:31-46
Today is Christ the King Sunday, it is, as Maggie mentioned, the end of the liturgical year. It is also a bit of an odd day. Pope Pius XI first instituted the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of October in 1925. Pius hoped the day would counter growing nationalism. In 1970, Pope Paul VI moved the celebration to its present date, the last Sunday before Advent. I am not quite sure when Presbyterians picked it up, but it is a nice bit of ecumenical work appropriate to the spirit of the day, a reminder that, no matter which earthly citizenship we hold, or which denominational affiliation follow, in the end, there is one church, one God, one Christ.
As such, we have texts that point to the spiritual kingship of Christ. A few years ago, I remember seeing “A good king is like a shepherd” on a whiteboard in a Sunday school classroom. I have long wished I knew more about what that class was covering, because it might have been one of these texts, or one of several others. The theme of the Shepherd-Leader is a consistent one throughout Scripture, (and the wider ancient world) and includes many familiar names, including Jacob, Moses, and David, each of whom were literal shepherds at some point in their lives, and, of course, Jesus, though he is more of a metaphorical shepherd.
Shepherds are, of course, individuals responsible for herding and caring for groups of animals—usually sheep, rams, goats, and the like. To a large degree, the job of the shepherd is facilitated, if not made possible, by the natural desire of herd animals to stay together. Remember that, because, as I said, in a bit, I’m going to be talking about cats.
Our reading from Ezekiel offers up some of the reasons why a shepherd is a good model for a king: a good shepherd seeks out lost members of the flock, ensures access to good food and clean water. A good shepherd would provide special attention to the weak animals that they might become stronger and would ensure that stronger species in a mixed flock, like rams and goats, do not beat up on the weaker members, like sheep.
Ezekiel, in chapter 34, is speaking from Babylon, to his fellow captives from Judah, an audience who would certainly like the first part of what we heard today. They likely would have heard Ezekiel promising that God would bring them, as well as the Israelites scattered after the fall of the Northern Kingdom some time before, back into the Holy Land. That Jerusalem would be restored, and the temple rebuilt…this is happy news, and news timely delivered, since Ezekiel had just told them that the Jerusalem had fallen and Temple was destroyed…and then opened Chapter 34 by blaming the very people he was addressing, calling the leaders of Judah (who made up the bulk of the exiles) as bad shepherds whose harsh treatment scattered the animals and left them defenseless. It was their failures that were forcing God to intervene by directly acting as shepherd before appointing a single designated shepherd who Ezekiel identifies as being in the model of David.
It is this mantel that Jesus is claiming in, among other places, our reading from Matthew, but with some twists. Jesus, and many of the people listening to him, would have known this text from Ezekiel, and certainly would have noticed the differences. Ezekiel spoke of gathering the sheep from amongst the nations. Jesus speaks of gathering the nations together. Ezekiel spoke of the responsibilities of leaders, while Jesus speaks of the responsibilities everyone.
Ezekiel spoke of a coming shepherd for the Hebrews. Jesus claims to be a shepherd for all people.
Both Jesus and Ezekiel speak of shepherds separating sheep and goats – animals often kept by shepherds, and as familiar, if not more familiar to their audiences than to us today. In the case of Jesus, shepherds appear at the very beginning of his story as the first to hear of his birth. Both Jesus and Ezekiel use this metaphor to describe ideal leadership. It is, for the reasons I’ve discussed already, an apt and well-known metaphor.
But I think it has a key flaw.
We are neither sheep nor goats.
I have already said a shepherd’s job is largely rendered possible by the fact that sheep, and goats, basically want to stay together.
Humans, not so much…
We may like to come together in smaller groups from time to time, but if we really look at humanity as a whole, we are, and always (or since the Fall) have been, desperate to find reasons to maintain distance from each other.
We are not sheep. We are not goats. We are cats.
Cats are so notoriously averse to herding that the idiom “It’s as hard as herding cats” was tested by MythBusters. I wish I could say it went about as well as you would expect, but it was worse.
Humans are so averse to herding that we created the pejorative “Sheeple.”
Sheep generally want to know what the shepherd wants them to do so they can do it.
Cats want to know what their person wants of them, so they can do…anything else.
A flock of sheep left alone for a time will require some re-gathering but will be grateful.
A cat will punish you for having left.
We, well, there are so many places I could go that I will leave this one to you.
Sheep are reasonably constant animals, but cats are fickle, appearing grateful for attention right up to the moment they decide to sink their claws and/or teeth into your hand.
The stories of the Bible, of all human history, are stories of cats.
But there is hope. Despite, despite all the scorn, punishment, moodiness, sneak attacks, and indifference cats show their people, people still love their cats.
The internet, at this point, could be not unreasonably described, as a place where people go to either stoke rage or look at pictures of cats.
Herding cats is difficult, but not impossible. In some cities, at least, before covid, there are places called Cat Café’s, where people who do not have cats can go and have your tea or coffee in the company of a cat. I have never been to one, at least not to one that was deliberately created as such.
But I have been to Ahlan Café, in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom is a village about halfway between Haifa and Tel-Aviv. The village’s name consists of the Arabic and Hebrew phrases translating to “Oasis of Peace.” This is a village founded by Jewish and Palestinian Citizens of Israel which seeks to, among other things, provide a model for Jewish and Palestinians living together.
Ahlan Café sits at the entrance to the village, and is run by Dyana and Rayek Rizek. I did not have much opportunity to speak with Dyana, but my group did get to speak with Rayek, a founding member of the community. There is much in Rayek’s story that is worth telling, but right now, I want to focus on just one thing. The dozen or so cats who roamed the café while we ate and talked. Neither Rayek nor Dyana had set out with the intent of having so much as one cat, much less the, if I remember correctly, more than twenty they had somehow come to care for. Rayek simply came to open the café one morning, and there was a cat, weak, and hungry. So Rayek set out some food from the café’s stock. Over time, additional cats found there way to the café, whose name, Ahlan, means “welcome.” Even as they accumulated, Dyana and Rayek kept putting out food to make sure they all were fed. Eventually, they arrived one morning to find one of the cats was injured, so they took it to the vet, thus tacitly agreeing to add veterinary care to the food they provided their growing flock of cats, many of whom no longer just show up in the mornings, but now spend their days lounging with the customers in the outdoor dining area.
Without ever trying, or even so much as wanting to, Dyana and Rayek Rizek, are herding cats.
Despite all our human flaws, all our pettiness, intransigence, our fickle feelings toward ourselves, each other, and even toward God, we live in a world with Dyana and Rayek Rizek.
We have a God who cares for us as they care for those cats.
Thanks be to God.