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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Rulers as Shepherds, a Case for Compassionate Government


Endow the king with your justice, O God,
    
the royal son with your righteousness.

May he judge your people in righteousness,
    
your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
    
the hills the fruit of righteousness.

May he defend the afflicted among the people
   
 and save the children of the needy;
    
may he crush the oppressor.
(Psalm 72:1-4, NIV)

Most people agree that individuals, churches and charities should look out for the welfare of the poor, but is this kind of shepherding care a proper role for government?

In some Bible study I did recently I discovered that the term “shepherd” in Hebrew Scripture (when used metaphorically) almost always refers to kings rather than to prophets, priests or others in roles we would normally consider “pastoral.” Speaking of David as anointed king, the prophet Samuel says, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel.” And Isaiah even writes of a foreign king, Cyrus, “He is my shepherd. He shall carry out my purposes.”

In the New Testament, of course, the title "Good Shepherd" is used to describe Jesus as sovereign over God’s people, and in Psalm 23 we have a much loved example of God as a benevolent model for all earthly rulers.

There is frequent conflict in Hebrew scripture between kings and prophets, and the latter were often persecuted or simply ignored when they railed against rulers ("shepherds") who fleeced their sheep for their own profit and failed to provide for their wellbeing.

Here are some examples of passages that speak to the obligation rulers have to see that those in their charge have access to basic needs and are well cared for:

Ezekiel 34: The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.

Jeremiah 23: “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. 3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    

“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
 
a King who will reign wisely
    
and do what is just and right in the land."

As in Biblical times, sheep are not normally hand fed, of course, but are led into the best pastures possible and allowed to graze freely. All are provided equal protection and given equal access, with the weakest offered special care as needed.

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