The Shepherd King

Reign of Christ

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46

“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered …” (Ezekiel 34:11-12)

On “Reign of Christ” Sunday (or “Christ the King” Sunday), we are called to consider what it means to say that Christ is our Sovereign Lord.

One of the best ways to do this, I think, is to reflect upon our baptisms. Through the water of baptism, we pass into the Kingdom “of our God and of His Christ,” as George Frederick Handel once wrote.

“King of Kings! Lord of Lords! And he shall rule forever and ever. Hallelujah!”

How we love those words from the “Hallelujah Chorus”! Even with lyrics like those—taken from the Book of Revelation—the music seems to strain to express the inexpressible splendour of Christ’s final triumph as king.

And his victory, we have been promised, will be ours, in the measure that we have laboured with him to build the kingdom of justice, love, and peace. That is the kingdom into which we have been baptized—”the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ”. We must labour, for that is the mission which Christ has entrusted to us.

Christ reigns through us—in our history, until the task is completed and the human family has at last been united in God’s love. Then will come the victory, when Christ will hand over the kingdom to God—subjecting himself to God—so that God may be all in all.

That Christ’s final victory is this act of loving surrender to God is a key to understanding this kingship of Christ and of Christians. It suggests a style of reigning that has its origins in the “shepherd king” imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The prophets of old often spoke of a saviour-king, but the shepherd-king—David—was their prototype, and the shepherd image was dominant. God had called David a man after his own heart* precisely because David ruled as the Lord’s servant, executing God’s intentions as supreme Shepherd and King of Israel.

“I myself will look after and tend my sheep, as a shepherd tends his flock,” God says in Ezekiel, chapter 34. But God also says, referring to the coming day of salvation: “I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David.”

We can only guess how Jesus’ soul must have responded to Ezekiel’s words, which echo so clearly in his portrayal of himself as the good shepherd. Jesus’ mission was to care for his flock, seeking out the scattered and the lost, binding up their wounds, providing them rich pastures and life in abundance.

With the authority of the shepherd whose single-minded concern was the welfare of the sheep, Jesus discerned what would bring life and what would bring death; with the power of the shepherd’s love he defended his sheep, even giving his life for them.

Ezekiel’s strong denunciations of the false shepherds of Israel are also echoed by Jesus in his judgements against the hirelings who get into the shepherding business just for the money—and who exemplify the self-serving politicians who hold office in every institution.

Our world abounds with false shepherds who fit this description—political, social, cultural, business, professional and religious leaders—who are pasturing themselves at the expense of those under them. And you know, institutions tend to magnify exponentially the power of individuals for good or for evil.

Nations, corporations, religious bodies—all organizations—are subject to divine judgement, which will be directed against those who have created or used institutions to dominate or enslave.

The judgement scene in Matthew 25 makes our task specific: we cannot escape our responsibility for the common good. We are all shepherds charged with the care of one another. “Love one another as I have loved you,” is the good shepherd’s command. We will be judged on whether we have used the authority and power invested in that command to care for the neediest of Christ’s sheep.

As Christians, however, we have an even more explicit call to share in Christ’s work as shepherd-king: we must bear witness to the truth. As individuals and as the church, we must try to discern—with the mind and heart of the good shepherd—what conditions will foster the life of the sheep and what will bring only death. We must study, reflect, pray, and then make judgements regarding the moral issues confronting society today.

We bear witness to the truth as we see it, recognizing that our judgements are limited and may need correction in time. We bear witness to the truth as Jesus did—by our words and by our lives. We may even lay down our lives for the truth, as Jesus did. But we must never force on others our understanding of the truth; for that is precisely what false shepherds do.

Jesus lived, taught, and died in greater possession of the truth than we can ever be in this life—but he never coerced anyone to believe in him or to follow his way. We must be wary of using any kind of social or political or legal pressure to compel others to conform to our truth. Witness, yes; force, no.

There is something inconsistent, for example, in preaching respect for human life while denying human freedom; or advocating family while rejecting the sister or brother whose sexual orientation is different from our norm; or proclaiming liberty and justice for all while supporting tyrants at home, in church, or across the sea.

The power of false shepherds—the tyrants of this world—is FEAR! The only power for the Christian is love, a love that is rooted in a profound respect for the freedom of human persons. God’s kingdom is a community of freedom, and force has no place within it.

It is in joyous freedom that all people are called to sing: “King of Kings! Lord of Lords! And he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”


* 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22




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