Tendencies of Unfaithful Shepherds

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 34.2-6
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. 

Reflection: Tendencies of Unfaithful Shepherds
By John Tillman

God comforted Ezekiel, who sang the song of God’s love faithfully and beautifully to people who refused to listen and obey. Then God confronted the prophets and priests who were unfaithful. 

To modern ears, Ezekiel’s description sounds like flamboyant, prosperity gospel hucksters with pockets and clothing as gilded as their voices. This extreme visual, however, can cause us to miss deeper problems. God is less concerned with the wealth of the shepherd than with the health of the flock. 

In reality, most pastors live fiscally and morally responsible lives. Yet, a pastor can abuse power without ever accumulating a fleet of private jets. A pastor can abuse trust without ever being exposed in a sex scandal. Unfaithful shepherds place their own security and power before the health of the flock. Caring for others as a shepherd almost always goes against our self-preservation instincts.

In a beautiful pre-visualization of Jesus’ earthly ministry, God tells Ezekiel that he, himself, will come to the scattered sheep. He himself will search for them, gather them, heal them, and care for them.

Wise shepherds could draw from this passage a self-assessment tool: 

  • Are the weak strengthened or are the “sleek and strong” subjecting the weak? 
  • Are the sick healed or do the healthy shame the sick? 
  • Are the hurts of the wounded bound up or are the angry ignored so they will limp away alone? 
  • Are people treated tenderly or is failure or dissent crushed with authority and malice? 
  • Are the strays and the lost brought home or do those who called this home stray? 

Jesus had compassion on the masses because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9.35-38) Those who should have been binding up the weak, were instead “binding up heavy burdens” and not lifting a finger to help. (Matthew 23.1-12)

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day and Ezekiel’s fellow prophets became unfaithful shepherds for similar reasons. Power and recognition were more attractive to them than service and selflessness. Control and authority were grasped by them rather than mercy and humility. Law and order were enforced by them rather than doing justice and righteousness. Unfaithful shepherds have these tendencies in common.

May we, and our shepherds be more like Jesus. May we seek and support earthly shepherds like him, who with mercy, humility, justice, and righteousness, gather, feed, guide, protect, and heal.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
He spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being upright and despised everyone else, “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, ‘I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ This man, I tell you, went home again justified; the other did not. For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.” — Luke 18.9-14

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 34  (Listen – 5:11) 
Psalm 83-84 (Listen – 3:20)

Read more about The Purpose of Power
The idea that the rich can’t be bought is a fallacy. In some cases, saying the rich can’t be bought is like saying an alcoholic won’t want another drink.

Read more about The Sin Which Fells Nations
From Isaiah we can learn that what looks like a great and powerful nation may actually be a spiritual wasteland of pride and greed.

The Limits of Ministry

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 33.30-32
30 “As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.’ 31 My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. 32 Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. 

Reflection: The Limits of Ministry
By John Tillman

Ezekiel ministered during a drastic change in Jewish worship. Since the exodus, Jews had never been without the ministry of the priests at the tabernacle or the temple. With the sacrificial system dismantled, the gathering of God’s people to hear the teaching of priests and prophets like Ezekiel was all that was left of their worship practices.

Ezekiel was faithful but there are limits to what a minister of God can accomplish. Pastors can’t control whether people listen or have faith or obey.

There is a sense sometimes among ministers that failures of culture, failures of the body of Christ, and failures of communities are somehow all on them.

“If I just preached the gospel better…” 
“If I just sang about God’s grace more beautifully…” 
“If I just refuted arguments more compellingly…”

There is also, at times, dissatisfaction among congregants about the content and presentation during times of worship.

“If only they would preach less (or more) about politics…”
“If only they would sing this type of music…”
“If only they would change this element…”

God holds prophets and preachers accountable for telling the truth but not for the outcome. Multiple times in scripture prophets were told ahead of time to speak the truth even though people would not listen. God requires watchmen on the wall to faithfully call out warning but holds people responsible for their response. Only if watchmen fail to tell the truth do they have blood on their hands.

Ministry leaders bear great responsibility and many fail in varying degrees as did Israel’s priests and prophets, (we will discuss this tomorrow) but hard-hearted listeners are still blameworthy. Even listening to Ezekiel, one of the greatest prophets of his day or any day, these exiled Jewish leaders remained greedy for gain rather than being repentant.

Ministry leaders are a force for good in the world when they raise their voices to call for change. But no matter how beautiful their voices are, if the body of Christ does not have ears to hear and hearts to respond, judgment will be the result.

We cannot allow pastors and worship leaders to become merely singers of love songs with beautiful voices and instrumentalists with beautiful artistry. We must have more than words of love in our mouths. We must have beautiful feet that carry the gospel. We must take actions that put God’s word into practice.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully. — Psalm 145.19

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 33  (Listen – 6:03) 
Psalm 81-82 (Listen – 2:36)

Read more about Denying our Exile
Much of Ezekiel’s ministry was attempting to convince the already exiled, that there was not going to be a miraculous return to Israel’s glory days.

Read more about Treasuring Our Temples
The worship they thought God prized had become annoying noise, because there was no justice established when they stopped singing about justice.

Of Pride and The Sword

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 32.9-10, 19-21
9 I will trouble the hearts of many peoples 
when I bring about your destruction among the nations, 
among lands you have not known. 
10 I will cause many peoples to be appalled at you, 
and their kings will shudder with horror because of you 
when I brandish my sword before them. 
On the day of your downfall 
each of them will tremble 
every moment for his life. 

19 Say to them, ‘Are you more favored than others? Go down and be laid among the uncircumcised.’ 20 They will fall among those killed by the sword. The sword is drawn; let her be dragged off with all her hordes. 21 From within the realm of the dead the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’ 

Matthew 26.52
“…all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  

Reflection: Of Pride and The Sword
By John Tillman

Jesus does not simply make up this proverb (Matthew 26.52) about the sword out of thin air. 

Jesus was pointedly referencing the recurrent theme of the sword in scripture. He did so both as a warning to Peter and the disciples and a condemnation of the religious leaders and the empire with which they were partnering in his unjust murder.

The English phrase “the sword” is mentioned over 1,400 times in the New International Version of the Bible. Its usage is sometimes literal, but the word is often used as a metaphor for violence. It is sometimes the violence of war between nations, sometimes the violence of nations against their own poor, orphans, widows, and foreigners, and sometimes the violence between people.

In scripture the sword is not inanimate. The sword is hungry, with an appetite to devour individuals, races, nations, kings, and empires. (2 Samuel 11.25; Jeremiah 46.14) The sword is wielded by kings and empires and then cuts them down. Even David, the human archetype of the messiah to come, wielded the sword selfishly and was told “the sword will never depart from your house,” as a result. (2 Samuel 12.10)

God’s question to Egypt, (Ezekiel 32.19) “Are you more favored than others?,” could be phrased, “Are you the exception?” This question implies a belief in Egyptian exceptionalism. Many nations think so. “Other nations have fallen, but we can not. Other nations were foolish, but we are wise. Other nations are evil, but we are worthy of praise.”

God had emphasized to Egypt that greater nations than she had fallen due to pride and abuse of authority. Despite how Egypt, or any nation, postures itself, those who live by the sword will fall by it. Those who profit by violence will face justice.

God does not rejoice in the death of any person, much less any nation (Ezekiel 33.11; 2 Peter 3.9), but he rejoices to see justice done to oppressors and the proud humbled. 

As individuals and nations, may we learn this in humility. May we not puff ourselves up with pride. May we not deny our sins but confess and repent. Then, rather than shake with fear, (Ezekiel 32.10) we may rejoice on the day oppressors fall, unjust governments are unseated, and Jesus, with the sword of his mouth (Revelation 19.11-16) cuts down wielders of the sword who oppose justice.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” — Psalm 14.1

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 32  (Listen – 5:30) 
Psalm 80 (Listen – 1:58)

Read more about Hearing the Groans of the Prisoner
He hears the cries of all those oppressed by their rulers. He judges all rulers and leaders who conduct themselves with pride and irresponsibility.


Read more about Prepare for the End
Christians are sometimes guilty of looking forward to the apocalypse like a private revenge fantasy.

Hearing the Groans of the Prisoners

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 31.10-12, 18
10 “ ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because the great cedar towered over the thick foliage, and because it was proud of its height, 11 I gave it into the hands of the ruler of the nations, for him to deal with according to its wickedness. I cast it aside, 12 and the most ruthless of foreign nations cut it down and left it.

18 “ ‘Which of the trees of Eden can be compared with you in splendor and majesty? Yet you, too, will be brought down with the trees of Eden to the earth below

Psalm 79.10-13
10 Why should the nations say, 
“Where is their God?” 
Before our eyes, make known among the nations 
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants. 
11 May the groans of the prisoners come before you; 
with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die. 
12 Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times 
the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord. 
13 Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, 
will praise you forever; 
from generation to generation 
we will proclaim your praise.

Reflection: Hearing the Groans of the Prisoners
By John Tillman

The psalmist, living under Babylonian exile, begs God to hear the “groans of the prisoners.” This is more than a reference to the writer’s own groaning. The poet is referencing the groans which caused God to “come down” (Exodus 3.7-9) to aid his people when they were oppressed by Egypt.

There are examples in scripture of both physical and spiritual salvation but typically they are connected or blended together. Moses’ liberation of the Jews from Egypt is the most iconic example of physical salvation and is the archetype biblical writers look to as a metaphor for spiritual salvation.

The ultimate example of God “coming down” is the incarnation of Jesus. We may think of Christ’s first advent as primarily about spiritual salvation, however, Mary is inspired by the Holy Spirit to sing of oppressors being toppled and the lowly being comforted. (Luke 1.52-53

Physical salvation is always top of mind for the persecuted and God’s wrath only sounds harsh to those who have rarely suffered. But God has more than physical suffering in mind and more sufferers than just his people in his heart.

Our readings from Ezekiel reference Egypt more directly as next on the list in Ezekiel’s long list of prophecies, judgments, and laments for other nations. These passages demonstrate that God is concerned with, and has dominion over, all nations, expressing wonder at their successes and anger at the harm they bring to others.

Why does God address these other nations? Why does God lament their falls and attempt to teach other nations by the example of their punishment?

Ezekiel realizes, and so must we, that all humans are not only under God’s dominion but God’s affection. God will not only visit judgment on them for evil but visit them in compassion during their oppression. Time and time again, God condemns through the prophets the same things—greed, pride, abuse of power. 

He is not just “our” God. He hears the cries of all those oppressed by their rulers. He judges all rulers and leaders who conduct themselves with pride and irresponsibility.

God is hearing the groans of those who are prisoners. Are we?

Who is suffering that we have ignored? God hears them.
Who is crying out that we would silence? God hears them.

Pray this week, that we would hear the groans…not seeking to be consoled as to console. (Prayer of St. Francis)

*Music: Prayer of St. Francis — Sarah McLachlan

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Be seated on your lofty throne, O Most High; O Lord, judge the nations. — Psalm 7.8

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 31  (Listen – 3:31) 
Psalm 79 (Listen – 1:50)

Read more about Freedom for Prisoners
Sin is our crime, our addiction, and our prison. Yet Jesus comes to free us nonetheless.

Read more about From Slavery to Service—Worldwide Prayer
May we leave behind our slavery and enter his service becoming thankful workers for peace.

Discipline for the Anxious

Scripture Focus: Psalm 77.2-3
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.

From John: The world has gotten even more anxiety-inducing since we originally posted this in 2018. Many suicides of Christians and Christian ministers in the intervening years testify to this.

Christian meditation and prayer is still an important discipline to help us in distressing times but some problems you can’t pray away. Ask Paul. Ask Jesus. If you need the help of a counselor or doctor you are not being unfaithful. See the resources at the end of this post for help and more information. 

Reflection: Discipline for the Anxious
By John Tillman

We live in distressing times. If there are corners of our world not touched by division, aggression, worry, and angst, you probably can’t get email there.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues are on the rise—especially among younger adults. National Survey of Children’s Health researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety among children ages 6 to 17, between 2007 and 2012. The American College Health Association found that anxiety, rather than depression, is the most common reason college students seek counseling services and that in 2016, 62 percent of undergraduates reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. (An increase from 50 percent in 2011.)

Studying this, science is discovering things that are not exactly new under the sun. A recent Harvard study found that church attendance paired with spiritual disciplines such as meditation and prayer have a beneficial effect on mental health. In a Forbes article, study author Ying Chen noted that being raised religiously, “can powerfully affect [children’s] health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”

The psalmists would not express surprise at these findings. Though we think of our society as facing pressures unknown to humanity until now, we would be mistaken to think of ancient times as idyllic and calm.

David and the other psalmists certainly knew what it was like to live under threat, under financial pressure, under the constant weight of political instability and the wavering loyalty of an unpredictable government.

Amidst such pressures, they had a safe haven. Their help for the stresses of life was meditation and prayer.*

The psalmist writes of being “too troubled to speak,” yet he cries to God. He writes of insomnia, yet he rests in God. He writes of doubts and of feeling that God has rejected him, that his love has vanished, that he had forgotten to be merciful. Yet in the midst of doubts and fears, he remembers God’s faithfulness in the past. He meditates on these memories in the heated moment of stress.

Although the benefits of meditation can help in a crisis, meditation is not a quick fix. It is not a fast-acting antidote for the world’s venom, but an inoculation to be taken ahead of time.

When beginning (or returning to) meditative prayer, start small and short. Use the prayer provided at the end of this devotional (Psalm 119.147) as a start. Spend two to five minutes simply re-reading the prayer with an expectant heart, asking God to be with you.

*We are in no way implying that meditation should be pursued in lieu of proper medical treatment. If you are in need of counseling and professional services, please consider the following resources:
Mental Health Grace Alliance
Not A Day Promised Resource Page
Life Recovered (Resources for Ministers)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention
Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.
You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” Your face, Lord, will I seek.
Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. — Psalm 27.10-12

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 28  (Listen – 4:32)
Psalm 77 (Listen – 2:12)

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 29  (Listen – 3:43) Psalm 78:1-39 (Listen – 7:12)
Ezekiel 30  (Listen – 4:07) Psalm 78:40-72 (Listen – 7:12)

Read more about The Practice of Meditation :: Running
One way of thinking of meditative prayer is exercise to expand your spiritual lung capacity, allowing you to breathe in God’s spirit more naturally at any time—including during a crisis.

Read more about The Practice of Meditation :: Tea
Allow the scripture to soak in your mind, repetitively dip it in your thoughts as you would a tea bag into warm water.

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