Care For the Flock (Ezekiel 34:1-16)

The Lord God said:

Ezekiel, son of man, Israel’s leaders are like shepherds taking care of my sheep, the people of Israel. But I want you to condemn these leaders and tell them:

I, the Lord God, say you shepherds of Israel are doomed! You take care of yourselves while ignoring my sheep. You drink their milk and use their wool to make your clothes. Then you butcher the best ones for food. But you don’t take care of the flock! You have never protected the weak ones or healed the sick ones or bandaged those that get hurt. You let them wander off and never look for those that get lost. You are cruel and mean to my sheep. They strayed in every direction, and because there was no shepherd to watch them, they were attacked and eaten by wild animals. So my sheep were scattered across the earth. They roamed on hills and mountains, without anyone even bothering to look for them.

Now listen to what I, the living Lord God, am saying to you shepherds. My sheep have been attacked and eaten by wild animals because you refused to watch them. You never went looking for the lost ones, and you fed yourselves without feeding my sheep. So I, the Lord, will punish you! I will rescue my sheep from you and never let you be their shepherd again or butcher them for food. I, the Lord, have spoken.

The Lord God then said:

I will look for my sheep and take care of them myself, just as a shepherd looks for lost sheep. My sheep have been lost since that dark and miserable day when they were scattered throughout the nations. But I will rescue them and bring them back from the foreign nations where they now live. I will be their shepherd and will let them graze on Israel’s mountains and in the valleys and fertile fields. They will be safe as they feed on grassy meadows and green hills. I promise to take care of them and keep them safe, to look for those that are lost and bring back the ones that wander off, to bandage those that are hurt and protect the ones that are weak. I will also slaughter those that are fat and strong because I always do right. (Contemporary English Version)

We have a pastoral duty to care for one another. Individuals need not have the title of “Pastor” in order to function as pastoral people who seek the welfare of the flock. A part of our responsibility (and privilege) is to know the flock well enough in discerning when there are some lost ones out there. Whenever that happens, we care about them enough to go after them.

If we either ignore the flock, fail to care for it, or seek to fleece them for our own benefit, we will have to contend with a God who has no tolerance for unnecessarily putting the sheep at risk. And we are to be attentive to the ones who have strayed and are lost.

Caring about the lost, enough to go after them, has always been, unfortunately, a scandalous activity for Christians who do it. In the Gospels, the religious leaders had a big problem with how Jesus was spending his time (Luke 15:1-3). From their perspective, Christ was guilty by association. Many of the people Jesus pursued and hung-out with were unsavory characters; there was really no doubt about their bad character. 

But we must come back to why Christ made the decisions he did: Jesus did not come to earth to make already righteous people feel good about being around him; he came to rescue sinners and restore them to God. 

Jesus never wavered from this fundamental mission. With everything he said and did, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, communicated that lost people matter to God – and that practice eventually got him killed.

Early in my Christian life, I adopted a practice, on most Friday nights, of going to a certain bar known for its less than virtuous clientele. I typically ordered a bowl of chili gumbo, and simply sat and talked with fellow students. I learned a lot about people – their hopes, fears, and spiritual inclinations. 

I learned even more about God. I saw the terrible brokenness of many people’s hearts, and saw that the heart of God was pained in longing to restore such persons to a place of spiritual abundance, peace, and joy.

One Friday night, in the middle of winter, as I was walking back from the bar with a friend at about midnight, we encountered a guy so drunk that he could not walk straight. He wasn’t wearing any pants, nor did he have a coat. In below freezing temperatures, he was in only a shirt and underwear. 

All the people who passed by him laughed and kept walking. But we stopped. It took several minutes to get some semblance of a story out of him about what happened, where he came from, and where he lived. The poor guy couldn’t remember losing his pants, which had his wallet and keys. 

He lived far enough away that there was no way he would have ever made it home. It’s quite probable that without someone helping him he would have passed out somewhere and died. We got him home, found a way to get into his place, and tucked him in his bed.

The next day I went and checked on him. Even though he had a bad hangover, we still had a good conversation about what happened and why I helped him. We ended up meeting several times together and talked a great deal about God, guilt, grace, Jesus, and salvation. 

Meanwhile, however, not everyone was happy about my practice. Some of the people in my church were not pleased with me spending time in a bar with “sinners.” They told me things like, “Bad company corrupts good character” and “it doesn’t look good.” I merely matter-of-factly responded, “I like the way I’m reaching out to lost people better than the way you’re not.”

We are in danger of becoming encrusted with so much insulation from lost people, and their very real hurts, that we do not know God’s heart for them. 

Jesus, better than any of us could ever imagine, knows how awful and horrific sin really is. That’s because he suffered by taking on the shameful baggage of every person who ever lived. Since Jesus understands how awful guilt and shame is, it’s God who goes uncorked with joy and celebration when just one lost sheep is restored to the flock.

Grace lies at the center of God’s heart – a scandalous grace that defies all earthly sense. God’s deepest desire, greatest yearning, and most passionate dream is that lost people return home. (Luke 15:11-32) 

In light of the reality that God’s heart burns for lost people, we as churches, faith communities, Christian ministries, and believers everywhere really need to: 

  • Put away all petty concerns and realize there are lost people, far from the flock, at risk and dying apart from God
  • Put all worries about the future in biblical perspective – because there are people with no hope and no God all around us
  • Put aside all pre-occupations with optics and marketing, numbers and money; and instead have a holy obsession with people knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified, risen, and coming again 

We are to make it our aim in this life to pray for, long for, look for, run after, and pursue lost people and restore them to life.

For what does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their life because they was too pre-occupied with everything but caring for the flock? And what does it profit a church to have buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew, but never see a lost soul come to Jesus?

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