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It is not normal for me to refer to the Daily Telegraph at all, let alone from the pulpit, but one of the stories I read in the colour supplement a few months ago stuck in my mind and made me feel ill. Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea, according to the article indulges in exotic and extraordinary foods at his table in the place in pursuit of an allegedly gourmand appetite. Special ingredients, especially fish steaks or carefully cultivated portions of beef are flown into Pyongyang at unbelievable expense and cooked by specially employed chefs, along with equally rare vegetables, including rice grown in special regions abroad. I am always upset when I hear of whole animals being slaughtered for a small, so deemed delicacy (Japanese Blue Fin Tuna for example) and also when they sell for outrageous sums of money. (A blue fin sold earlier this year for more than $390,000.) To do this when you are the leader of a country where rice is practically unavailable, of a country where 3.4 million of the 24 million population (that’s 14%) is suffering from malnutrition or starvation and gnawing on bamboo because of the shortage of anything else is unimaginable, unspeakable and, as I say, makes me quite ill simply thinking about it.
Chapter 34 of Ezekiel opens by asking this question:
“Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves, should not shepherds feed the sheep?”
It goes on to say:
“You eat the fat, you cloth yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings but you do not feed the sheep”
The people of the ancient near east often referred to Kings and leaders as shepherds. Ezekiel had been in Jerusalem before it fell to the Babylonians (in 586 BC) and he was exiled with the other captives. Israel and Judah had suffered from a succession of bad leaders and this is what prompted Ezekiel’s plea. The part of this chapter that we heard read this morning answers the question, what is God going to do about the fact that Jerusalem had fallen and that the people had been scattered into exile? The answer given is one of consolation, grace and hope:
“For thus says the Lord God; I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out”
You may remember that passage from Isaiah that is often used at ordinations and the licensing of priests when Isaiah finds himself in the presence of God and receives his calling. The description given of God in that passage is that he was sitting on a throne high and lofty and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Imagine that, the temple was the largest and most magnificent structure around and the hem, only the hem of God’s robe filled it completely. It is this same overawing majestic God that tells Ezekiel that he will stoop to look after his sheep and as we heard He, himself, will seek out the scattered, the strayed the lost and the injured and they shall feed on rich pasture, they shall lie down in good grazing land.
The verse that follows those we heard goes on to say something that ties in with our Gospel reading:
“As for my flock says the Lord God I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”
Or as Matthew puts it
“He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. “
Jesus’ teaching contains two ideas about judgement. Firstly’ there are clear instructions that we are not to judge others, examples of which include the story of the woman caught in adultery or that of Zacheas the hated tax collector but on this feast day of Christ the King, when the son of man comes in his glory, we are reminded that though we should not declare judgement on others, God will judge us all.
So it is not for me to decide whether Kim Jong Il is a goat or a sheep but the hope and promise we have is that God will.
A last word from chapter 34 of Ezekiel:
“Because you pushed with flank and shoulder and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide: I will save my flock and they shall no longer be ravaged and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”