What a few weeks we’ve had! Or more to the point, what a fantastic few weeks Julia Gillard has had! This can’t be bad for her approval ratings, and goodness only knows she needs all the help she can get. A visit from the Queen, no less, who at 85 is not only a polished and politically savvy performer but continues to win hearts wherever she goes. A successful and feel-good CHOGM hosted in Perth, then Gillard was off to the APEC leaders’ summit in Honolulu and back home in time to host a visit by the world’s most powerful ruler of all, the president of the United States. A parade of heads of state with all the trappings and our own Prime Minister looking a little bit regal herself, business leaders looking smug and self-satisfied and the rest of us mightily impressed. What does it all mean?
Of course, this parade of political leaders great and small might also leave us with a sense of disconnect, not to mention a few unanswered questions. With all this power and wealth and privilege on display, the minders and limousines and cordoned off areas forbidden to ordinary citizens much less the homeless shuffled out of sight for a few days – what do they actually stand for, these leaders of the nations? What are their true priorities? There’s a contradiction between the pomp and self-importance of their parade through our city streets, and the realities of the world we live in – political oppression and unaccounted for war crimes in Commonwealth countries such as Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, famine in North Africa, the now-defeatable scourge of AIDS still unnecessarily claiming 10 million lives a year, and along with climate change threatening predominantly the world’s poor, a new round of global financial shocks that threaten the basic stability even of developed nations. How well do our rulers think they are doing?
In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel – a prophetic work so uncompromising and challenging that according to the ancient rabbis it should never be read by people under 40 years of age – the oracle of judgement comes down on the whole dynastic line of Israel’s kings, the successors of the idealised David. Now, kings in the Old Testament are routinely likened to shepherds for obvious reasons – in the ancient world the role of a shepherd was to lead and protect the flock and predators, to provide shelter and food, to be vigilant and to put his or her own life on the line if necessary. Our own 21st century view of sheep as commodities, even if we do have a soft spot for cute fluffy lambs before we turn them into lamb chops – doesn’t quite capture the ancient sense of mutual belonging and responsibility that bound together subsistence farmers with the small herds that provided families with milk and wool and eventually meat. And yet, Ezekiel says, the shepherds have abrogated their responsibilities – the poor leadership of Israel has led directly to the suffering of exile. The shepherds have been self-serving, looking out for their own privilege and taking what they wanted from the flocks but not providing shelter or sustenance or protection and so the sheep were vulnerable to the ‘wild animals’ – by which Ezekiel means the successive invasions from Assyria and Babylon. As always, we need to read the judgement before we turn to the promise.
And so from the verse we came in, Ezekiel announces God’s resolve that things now are going to be different. God alone is going to be the shepherd, to show the care that human leaders have failed to provide. God alone, in other words, will be the king, fully and lovingly concerned for the vulnerable flock that is Israel. Because of God’s new decision, Israel will have a new future that is no longer defined by its corrupt political class. Not only that, this new king will destroy ‘the fat and the strong’, which is to say the protection of the weak means the destruction of the oppressive power of failed leaders. The images are reassuring and solid – justice, God says, is not justice unless it protects those who are powerless and challenges the privileges of the mighty. And then in the second chunk of today’s reading God says – I will do all that – but I will do it through a human emissary, a proper shepherd, a ruler who acts in my name – one worthy of being known as a successor of David who will not be king – only God is king – but a prince, which is to say the promised Davidic ruler will shepherd the people by exercising the priorities and purposes of God. For Ezekiel this is first and foremost an uncompromising political judgement and condemnation of the current leadership, and the assertion that God’s purposes have real-world implications. The time is coming when God’s priorities for justice and mercy will be made present.
Well, it’s not hard to see why the early Christian communities saw in this Davidic prophecy an anticipation of Jesus. Jesus the good shepherd would seek the lost sheep and lead and care for the flock. He would provide for the needs of the flock with “abundant life”. And so the metaphor of the shepherd still rings true for the church. In Jesus we see the hallmark of restorative and empowering leadership - a king whose kingship is revealed not through not through the trappings of worldly power but through humility and service.
But the passage from Ezekiel invites us to reflect not just on the ministry and self-sacrificial love of Jesus, but on the failure of true leadership that we see in our own world. Because the crises of the world we live in are crises of moral leadership. Political process even in modern democracies like our own have become subservient to the interests of big business. Witness the concerted opposition by big business to the mining resource rent tax which brought down the Rudd government, the ease with which huge mining interests can brush aside the concerns of farmers in the current debate over the process known as ‘fracking’ – the extraction of coal seam gas by drilling down and setting off underground explosions to shatter shale rock and release trapped gases - which in the process contaminates groundwater with poisonous and carcinogenic substances. More and more, public policy is conducted under pressure from wealthy and powerful vested interests, the ‘fat and strong’ who protect their own interests to the neglect of the vulnerable and powerless.
There is no doubt that the greed of powerful multinational financial corporations coupled with inadequate regulatory structures that failed to protect the vulnerable gave us the global financial crisis Mark I and probably Mark II as well. The current furore about the carbon tax funded by powerful business interests is about protecting the wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful, while shifting that burden of climate change off to future generations, or off to those with fewer resources. And so the critique of Ezekiel still applies, it still rings true in the world we live in. But Ezekiel announces, in God’s own words, that it will not always be so, and gives us a vision and a yardstick of what leadership – not just in some vaguely promised heaven but on this earth and in our own time, should look like – a leadership focused on the protection of the weak and the limitation of the strong, the restoration of the common good so that the whole community – rich and poor and weak and strong can live together in shalom. This is a reminder of what might be in this world that God has made, and a signpost to a future that can become possible only by imagining it and believing it and living it into reality.
As Christians on the Feast of the Reign of Christ we focus on the servant leadership of Jesus and we recognise that the kingship of the risen Christ is a different sort of leadership than any worldly model. It is the kingship of humility and self-giving love, in short the shepherd kingship envisaged by Ezekiel. And yet – the danger for us is that we retreat into a sort of other-worldly or next-worldly day-dream and fail to engage with the sharp criticism that the kingship of Christ implies for worldly structures of power. We can nostalgically sing ‘The King of Love my Shepherd Is’ – without recognising that it is we ourselves who are called to be the body of Christ, which surely means that it is us – the Church, the parish, Christian men and women – who are called to imagine and believe in and work towards relationships that challenge this world’s fascination with power.
Like ordinary people everywhere we can shake our heads because what can we do about it? We vote, and we try to remember the needs of others – especially at this time of year. We’re expected now to change the world?
Actually, yes. Did you not know? The Church is God’s history-long device for changing the world. By modelling a different kind of power, which is the power of relationship, the power of self-giving love. We actually do this more effectively than we think, and we do it when we are confident that this is what we are called to do, confident in the power of the Gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We also fail at it routinely, and all the time we find our own life starting to imitate the top-down structures of the world we live in, which is why we need to keep coming back here and opening ourselves to the source of love that we touch in the meal that joins us to one another and to the crucified and risen Christ. This is not just a feel-good weekly ritual, it is a recharge. It challenges the way we live, and it reminds us of the template by which we are to live.
How well are we doing? Does our life together as a parish grow out of the model of Jesus’ self-giving love? Do we give priority to building up those who are marginalised, to welcoming those who are excluded, to loving and serving one another and those in our community who need our care? How well are we doing in our families and in our neighbourhoods to model Jesus’ alternative logic of relational power?
If you are like me, the report card would probably read, ‘still trying’. But like Julia Gillard, we get a bit of a lift by associating with the model of power we want to imitate. Some of it rubs off, we find ourselves trying to live into the model that we most associate with, the king whose claim on our lives we publically acknowledge and whose ways we try to emulate. We do live with the reality of conflicting loyalties – the rule of self-giving love competes daily with the rule of consumerism and self-indulgence. To embrace one we are forced to renounce the other. Which version of power do we want to be known for? That’s the king to look for photo opportunities with.