by Hugh Farquhar
The Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned in the Lectionary for this coming Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday, is Ezekiel 34:11-15, 20-24.
I remember the occasion when Queen Elizabeth presented a medal to my father. He had helped to arrange sanctuary in Canada for British children during World War II. Prior to the presentation my parents had to attend an instructional event where among other things my mother learned the proper way to curtsy.
My mother was slightly pigeon-toed and found curtsying awkward. She practiced in our living room while my family took turns playing the Queen. We got a lot of mileage out of that: “C’mon Mum, show us your curtsy!” My parents were instructed about how to act as well: “Do not touch the Queen in any way; only shake her hand if it is offered; do not speak first; speak only when spoken to, apart from greeting her as “Your Highness.”
Next Sunday the Church celebrates the last Sabbath in the Christian Year and has chosen to accentuate the sovereignty of Christ on that day.
In a spiritual sense, the Christ is the one I choose to reign over my life, the one to whom I look for guidance, the one to whom I pledge my loyalty.
But when I think of it, the metaphor “Sovereign” applied to Jesus seems off, for it carries with it the characteristics of remoteness and detachment. My memory of my parents preparing to meet the monarch confirms that. The fact that they were coached to greet her as “Your HIGH-ness” suggests that a gulf existed between sovereign and subject. This is someone before whom one genuflects, whose status is so far above ours that we do not expect to receive more than a cursory glance.
Something is awry.
The sovereignty of the Christ is not like that, as is indicated by the metaphor that is found in the Ezekiel Reading: Shepherd. In biblical times, shepherding was among the lowlier occupations. Shepherds lived and worked away from the corridors of power. They were not considered important in the eyes of the world.
Yet poets and prophets sometimes saw noble qualities in them. The prophet Ezekiel is a case in point. In this Reading Ezekiel applied the metaphor of “shepherd” to God in a profound way.
It was the worst of times for the people of Israel. Jerusalem, the Holy City, had been destroyed by invaders. The people were devastated and demoralized. Ezekiel spoke to them a message of assurance and hope. He told them, “This is what God is saying to you. As shepherds seek out their flocks, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered. I will bring them into their own land, and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice.”
This image is a precursor of the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John.
So, this is a strange kind of sovereign, and the symbols of this sovereign’s reign are strange as well. Not a velvet lined throne but a cross. Not a golden crown but a crown of thorns. Not “Your highness” but in a sense “Your lowness.”
In the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Jesus stands before Pilate to be judged, and Pilate sings, “I am really quite surprised: you look so small, not a king at all.”
But he is! This is the Servant-Sovereign, the Sovereign of Love, the Shepherd-Sovereign.
“The king of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never” (Henry Williams Baker, 1868)
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB. He also teaches Biblical Studies in the Diploma in Theological Studies Program at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.