Hebrews 13:17-21; Luke 13:10-17 (Fast); Ezekiel 34; Wisdom of Solomon. (4:7-15)
Though most of us inhabit twenty-first century cities, Christians (and especially Orthodox) have a high comfort level with the ideas of shepherds and shepherding. The prominence of actual shepherds throughout holy Scriptures, from the wandering patriarchs through to those who were in the fields at the Nativity, gives us a sense of familiarity. Then there the numerous references to the Lord as Shepherd (Psalm 23; Jesus feeding the multitudes) and our understanding of the bishop as a shepherd— complete with his crozier, or pateritsa, to capture erring sheep and set them back on the path. His calling, by hook or by crook, is to keep the flock safe, and grazing in green pastures rather than in arid theological deserts, or on mountain rock close to the dangerous precipice.
This weekend, we honor a remarkable shepherd, St. Nicholas of Myra the Wonderworker, even as we read the epistle’s instructions on how to respect shepherds, and the gospel account of Jesus, the Great Shepherd, who rescued one of the sheep of Israel, to the distain of the religious leaders, who were seeking to please themselves. Let’s consider this theme and these passages in terms of a fiery passage from Ezekiel 34:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds…. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts… Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
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 some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice…
And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods…
They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them; they shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. And I will provide for them prosperous plantations so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the reproach of the nations.
And they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord GOD. And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 34:2-35:1 RSV)
God’s impassioned cry and strong promise remind us that the life of shepherd and sheep is not always bucolic. There are dangers, and these dangers sometimes come from WITHIN, from those who have been put in charge of the sheep. Here, then, God judges false shepherds and promises Israel that He will act as her own Shepherd, through the coming of the Messiah, who will shepherd the sheep. Distressed over his flock, scattered throughout the pagan world (at the time that the prophet writes), and hungry for a true word from God, the Lord takes it upon himself to act. No doubt prior to the coming of Jesus, the Word, readers of Ezekiel scratched their heads: how could God be the Shepherd, and “David” be the One Shepherd at the same time—but we know that “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us!” This is HIS flock, and he will keep her safe by his own arm—God the Son who has, in our time, shown that God is “with us,” both by his incarnation and by the indwelling power of his Holy Spirit with his people. Several centuries after Ezekiel gave his prophecy, God the Son fulfilled Ezekiel’s promised “covenant of peace,” for his is our peace: by his stripes we are healed, and by his incarnation and ascension we have the hope of glory.
And not only this. But in the Church, we have fathers, shepherds, who show us the divine nature in their own persons, and who work with God to keep us safe, fed, healthy and growing in godliness. Such shepherds are those who acknowledge and give glory to the one Great Shepherd of the sheep, who is acknowledged in the letter to the Hebrews: “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21). Some have thought that the presence of One Mediator, and One Shepherd means that God has no use for human instruments other than the one God-Man.
The truth is amazingly different! Instead, human leaders, their eyes fixed on Jesus and their hands stretched out in brotherly and fatherly fashion to us, are used mightily by God in all the ages. St. Paul was ministered to by Ananias, and ratified by the apostles (though he also was called upon to correct his brother Peter when the latter was in error). We are called to pray for each other and to confess our sins to each other. We are encouraged to call upon our pastors for anointing and direction. We are EACH to bear our own burden, and the burden of others. Here in Hebrews, the same letter that speaks about one mediator, we are told, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably” (Hebrews 13:17-19). Though the new Covenant brings direct and personal access to the Lord who has taken on all human flesh, and who visits every believer with His Spirit, it does not eradicate the beautiful human situation of dependence upon others. There is hierarchy without hierarchalism. For the One who is greatest became the least for us, and our bishop (himself a sheep) is also our servant, our shepherd, called to brave many things for the sheep.
The Christian life is full of the beauty of mediation and intercession! God will rescue and care for his own, by hook and by crook, by whatever tools given to us within the Church, and most especially by those wielded in the hands of godly leaders.
Sometimes they even used their bare hands! St. Paul worked in a non-kosher job for a living, making tents out of skins. And our father St. Nicholas, we are told, used his hands, in a slap, to chasten the one who was ravaging the Church in his day. And so he silenced Arius, who on the strength of a single iota, dishonored Christ our God, declaring he was simply homoiousios with the Father (of like essence) and not homoousios (of the same essence). For a while it looked very much as if the whole Church would go Arius’ way, the way of opinion and human rationality, rather than continuing to dwell in the staggering mystery of God-made-Man. St. Nicholas’ strong and symbolic action was disciplined at first, but we are told that he was supernaturally vindicated, and so restored to office, so that he could continue to use the episcopal crook in keeping the sheep in line!
There are some who doubt this story, thinking it a medieval accretion; others, however, have traced a notice to the saint’s presence in Nicaea back to the sixth century, and so it is unnecessary for us to be overly skeptical. Indeed, this seems hardly the kind of story someone would make up, despite the vindication of the saint by the appearing Theotokos. It is so uncharacteristic of the portrait of a “humble bishop,” and requires so much back-peddling and explanation, that it is, to my mind, more likely to be true. This is similar to the embarrassing stories concerning the weakness of that other shepherd, St. Peter. St. Nicholas, like St. Peter, is used by the Lord because of his devotion, and despite obvious weaknesses.
Nicholas, like Ezekiel, was fiery, but also greatly compassionate, as we know through his gift-giving to the poor, especially to young girls without dowries. Of him, the reading concerning saints in the book of Wisdom is completely appropriate, though St. Nicholas neither died young, nor was he raptured like Enoch:
For old age is not honored for length of time, nor measured by number of years;
but understanding is gray hair for men, and a blameless life is ripe old age.
There was one who pleased God and was loved by him, and while living among sinners he was taken up… (Wisdom 4:7-15)
Even at a young age, Nicholas showed wisdom beyond his years, having been orphaned, and raised to serve the Lord by his uncle. He left a long legacy of charitable and imaginative acts behind him, and cared for the bodies of those around him, as well as their souls. Thus we sing this verse concerning him, during Great Vespers,
While living in Myra in the flesh, thou wast myrrh in truth, as anointed with the sweet spiritual myrrh, O our Father Nicholas, august High Priest of Christ; * and with sweet myrrh dost thou anoint *the faces of those who ever keep with faith and love thine honoured memory, ending their misfortunes and perils, * freeing them from every affliction, by thine intercessions with the Lord of all.
This bishop, or High Priest, gave glory to the One High Priest our Lord throughout his life, both by his courage in facing Arius (and the consequences of that act, for which he was briefly imprisoned), and by his compassion for the perils of others. In him we find an icon or mirror, one who shows us Christ, both by action and by witness to the truth. His life is in every way a testimony to that compassionate Christ whom we meet in the gospel reading for this Sunday. Consider this luminous portrait of Jesus in Luke 13:10-17, and the glory of that One who taught where the people were, who saw the plight of a disabled woman, who called her, who loosed her by word and by the laying on of hands, and who made her able to glorify God:
Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.
But God’s Shepherd is not recognized by the earthly shepherd of that religious gathering place, who does not understand the true meaning of the Sabbath, or who perhaps is simply lacking in compassion, for Jesus calls him out on this:
But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”
The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”
Jesus, the chief Shepherd, can be tender but also firm, indeed corrective. In this story, he uses actions and words, including strong rhetoric, in order to show the will of God—that each of us should be set free from the enemy, who strives to attack us, soul and body. At times, of course, he was silent—especially as he went to slaughter. But here, before the people, he exposes the shallowness and distortion of the ruler, who has allowed the Torah to become a set of blinkers, preventing him from seeing God’s action in the here and now. By the words of this One who came among us, we are told, “all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.” In word and in deed, he displays the very nature of God, for he is homoousios to the Father in every way. The Almighty is the Shepherd, seeking, rescuing, and nurturing his sheep; and Christ our Lord is the Good Shepherd, the Mighty Shepherd of the sheep, who has enacted that rescue, and dwells with us, helping us, by hook or by crook, to become like him!