Lesson 43: “The Shepherds of Israel” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-32; 34; 37

This lesson brings together diverse texts from Ezekiel, where the only through-line might be the wisdom of turning to God when everything else lets you down. Ezekiel is a prophet from the time of the Babylonian captivity, so he knew something about being let down by everything else.

Chapter 18 is about when your parents let you down. They sinned, say, in a way that resulted in the destruction of your homeland and your removal to another country. (This, anyway, is the Hebrew Bible’s preferred way of reading those geopolitical events.) The chapter begins with the LORD telling Ezekiel to stop using the proverb, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” His point is that the children have an opportunity to make different choices than their parents. One generation’s wickedness need not determine the next generation’s outcome.

On one level, this is all well and good. The 2nd Article of Faith holds that we’re responsible for our own sins, not those of our ancestors. And it’s certainly important to emphasize that each generation bears the responsibility to depart from the errors of its predecessors. That’s key to a whole host of issues in our world, from climate change on down.

Even so, we should be wary of emphasizing individual accountability to the degree that we deny the way that social conditions structure the choices that we have available to us. “Privilege” is a word that might get you howled out of Sunday School (or firebombed in the comments thread), but it is nevertheless a thing. The choices that millennials make about the job market, for instance, are conditioned by a host of factors outside their control (at least until they start wresting electoral power from Baby Boomers, and even then). We could talk about a generational lack of grit (please don’t), or we could talk about the way that generational choices inevitably have consequences for those that follow.

So, the issue is complicated. Mormons don’t believe in original sin, in the sense of some gross fault passed down through the generations since the Fall for which we will all have to reckon with God, but on the other hand it’s hard not to say that the world, glorious though it is in many respects, makes it hard for anyone to do the right thing consistently, in part because it’s often difficult to figure out what the right thing even is, assuming that our circumstances admit of a right thing in every case, which I’m increasingly persuaded they don’t. All I’m saying is that we should let the difficulty here urge us toward charity with each other.

Ezekiel 34 is about when religious leaders let you down—and then about when your coreligionists let you down. This is the chapter where Ezekiel condemns the shepherds who feed themselves and not their flocks. The manual invites the class to apply these passages to themselves, asking how they might make the error of feeding themselves instead of those over whom they have stewardship. This is well and good, up to a point: we all do have some responsibility to care for others, and that does make us shepherds and therefore responsible to God for how we exercise that responsibility. But it’s also a dodge whereby the manual steers the class away from talking about the leaders of the Church. There’s a quote from McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine that applies the text universally, to “anyone serving in any capacity in the Church,” and this would seem to allow that Ezekiel 34 applies to Church leaders, but the manual does not otherwise acknowledge this possibility.

I get that even the slightest suggestion that our leaders might have made a mistake (a teensy one, just once) counts as rank heresy and the first step on a slippery slope to Dehlinite bitterness. (Even when Uchtdorf said it, we instead collectively decided to weaponize his talk against people who doubt.) On the other hand, it’s a suggestion with ample scriptural warrant, and we have the locus classicus before us today, when the manual could, as it so often does, have simply evaded the text altogether. Verse 10:

Thus says the Lord GOD: I am against the shepherds; and I will demand 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, so that they may not be food for them. (NRSV)

Do we dare ask the class what kinds of behavior from church leaders might count as “feeding on the sheep”? The scripture suggests that asking this question, which sounds heretical to Mormon ears, is in fact faithful, because it entails putting our trust in God, not in the arm of flesh. The Temple Recommend interview asks us whether we sustain our leaders, not whether we submit to them. These are not at all the same thing: we are to help hold up the weight of the awful office they bear, not feel that weight crushing down on us like the stones on Giles Corey’s chest in The Crucible. What’s the inflection point between these two experiences of our relationship to religious authority, and how might our leaders live into the attendant responsibility? What might we as members do to sustain our leaders in carrying out the work of their offices responsibly? (The normative answer here is “diddly squat,” but that’s why we need to ask the question.)

The next section of the chapter finds God taking up the shepherd’s crook for Godself, personally making up for the failure of the appointed shepherds. In modern terms, it might describe something like being spiritual but not religious: trusting directly in God, but without the mediation of a religious institution. If the leaders of said religious institution are in fact like those described in the first ten verses of the chapter—like Milton said of bishops in his day, “blind mouths,” people tasked with seeing (epi-skopos=overseer) who do not see, people tasked with feeding others who instead feed themselves—who would not be wise to abandon them and trust directly in God instead?

There is room in this chapter for the manual’s emphasis on our responsibility to each other as members of the Church. The relevant passage starts in verse 17, where God promises to judge among the sheep. Here Ezekiel has no kind words for those who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” (v. 21, NRSV). Once again, we have a Hebrew prophet appealing to an ethic of care for the weak, the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Both shepherds and sheep will answer to God for their care on that front.

The chapter concludes with God promising to compensate for the failures of both shepherds and sheep by restoring the Davidic monarchy. This suggests a shift from religious protection of the sheep to political protection. What are the liabilities of that, given the history of the Davidic monarchy as reported in the scriptures?

So far this lesson has been a hardcore downer, but Ezekiel 37 finally offers some hope. The chapter’s first section is his vision of the valley of dry bones—perhaps what’s left after the shepherds have eaten the sheep. Whether this passage evinces belief in resurrection or just uses it as a metaphor is up for debate, but in either case it speaks to God’s power to restore us to life when everything has been stripped away. The breath of life—the ruach or spirit—can renew us. Verse 11 interprets the vision as referring to the whole house of Israel, done in by exile, bad leaders (both religious and political), and personal wickedness, to the point that Ezekiel uses the image of graves. But this, even this, God can restore: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD” (v. 14).

The second half of Ezekiel 37 is the famous bit about the two sticks, which Mormons like to read as being about the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Whatever the validity of that interpretation, I don’t see how there’s much more to say beyond acknowledging it as the usual Mormon interpretation. (Trying to stretch a two-minute catechism over a forty-minute lesson is a perennial problem with Sunday School, but I digress…) I’d connect this passage to the discussion of the restored Davidic monarchy from chapter 34. It’s great that Ezekiel prophesies the reconciliation of Israel and Judah, but there’s some tension between this vision of kingship and that articulated in 1 Samuel 8, which envisions Israel’s clamor for human kingship as a rejection of divine kingship. Admittedly, this discussion has a deep history that makes it a political-theological morass, but the advantage of such things is that they enable teachers to fill forty minutes with ease before sending everyone on their disgruntled way to the third hour.

For me, the heart of this lesson lies at the intersection between chapters 18 and 34. Accountability finally rests with each of us to act well in our sphere, and we can’t abdicate that responsibility either to our parents or to our church leaders. When the prophet speaks, the thinking is NOT done. We should put our trust directly in God, whose spirit is life to our weary souls.

Related BCC Content:

Kevin Barney, “OT: Ezekiel’s Sticks”

Sam Brunson, “(Mis)reading Scripture”

Jason K., “Fifth Sunday in Lent”

Carolyn, “And There Was No Sick Among Them” (in case you want to make the lesson even more controversial than this post already has)

Comments

  1. Thanks. This is the next preparation on my agenda and I’m puzzling over it. I’d put odds on my lesson looking nothing like the manual.

    A seeming tangent, but not really — When you think about the people speaking at General Conference, their day job is talking with, counseling with, teaching, calling and selecting, mid-level Church leaders—mostly Stake Presidents and up. Including in that “up” that some of the talks read like a conversation by and among the Q15 themselves. It is interesting and I think useful to turn the GC talks around, considering what they say when heard as sermons directed primarily to that upper-crust audience, with us commoners invited to listen in on the side. .

  2. FYI for those who might be interested, the third and last volume of the Anchor Bible on Ezekiel just came out this week covering Chapters 38-49. The first two were done decades ago by the late Moshe Greenberg. When he died, the late Jacob Milgrom (author of the Anchor Bible volumes on Leviticus) took over until he died in 2010. Milgrom’s version was published as a kind of interfaith dialogue between he and Daniel I. Block, author of the two volume NICOT Ezekiel as a kind of Christian-Jewish discussion. Published as Ezekiel’s Hope in 2012. Now we have Stephen L. Cook’s version. These are very technical and won’t be as helpful.

    As for the post above, excellent and helpful comments. I’d be curious where christiankimball’s lesson takes him (us).

  3. Were the priests of Ezekiel’s day ever released? As far as we know they were “called” via hereditary with little consideration to righteousness, right? Discussing the pros and cons of that system versus today would probably be informative for most class members.

  4. Joseph Stanford says:

    Reading his during SS hour has helped me get something out of this time. Not ideal for SS hour perhaps, but nevertheless very much appreciated.

  5. I’m glad for that, Joe.

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