It’s not easily applied directly to church elders, because Ezekiel is speaking of a nation, not a congregation. But the heart of the passage is plenty clear enough.
(Eze 34:1-3 ESV) The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.”
The shepherds of Israel are surely the political and religious leaders — the king, the high priest, perhaps also the city elders. After all, Ezekiel is speaking near the time that Nebuchadnezzar is preparing to destroy Judah, its cities, and the Temple.
God’s complaint is that the shepherds — those charged with caring for the Jews on behalf of God — have been selfish, even stealing from those they were charged to care for.
(Eze 34:4-6 ESV) 4 “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
There are two complaints here. First, that the shepherds have not tended to the hurting and wounded among the people. Second, that the result has been a scattering of the Jews to the “high hills” with no one to search for them.
The scattering means that the sheep are vulnerable to wild beasts. That is, a lack of unity has resulted from the lack of a single, selfless leadership. This has let the sheep all go their own directions, putting them in grave danger.
God then promises to remove the leaders from power (which he did by means of Babylon!) and to then —
(Eze 34:12-16 ESV) 12 “As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.’
After the Exile, God himself will be the Good Shepherd. He will heal their wounds and feed them. He will seek the lost sheep to save them.
Now, in the context of a passage written to a king, the chief priest, and city elders, what does it mean that they failed to “bind up the injured, and … strengthen the weak”? Especially in light of the nation’s circumstance as Babylon’s armies were marching on them?
“High hills” refers to the fact that the local pagan “gods” were usually worshipped at “high places,” that is, on top of hills (Eze 6:13 and 20:28 make this very clear.). The language “go astray” repeatedly refers in the Torah and Ezekiel to idolatry (Deu 4:19; 11:28; 13:5; 30:17; Eze 44:10, 15; 48:11), and so “weak” and “sick” and “wounded” and such would seem to refer to sin — to spiritual disease.
The complaint isn’t that the king failed to visit his subjects when sick or attend their funerals. The complaint is that they did not keep the lost of sheep of Israel away from idols and the other sins that led to their destruction by Babylon.
Chapter 33, immediately preceding, declares —
(Eze 33:23-26 ESV) 23 The word of the LORD came to me: 24 “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ 25 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? 26 You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?”
God’s complaint is idolatry and the extreme immorality that comes from it. And in chapter 34, he condemns the leaders of the people for failing to do their jobs, that is, to heal the spiritual disease of idolatry and false teaching, of failure to obey the Torah because of it.
Now, to bring the lesson into the context of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus preached 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans. The Synoptic Gospels all record Jesus prophesying this event at the end of his ministry in Jerusalem. The Gospels have many subtle — and not so subtle — allusions to this event in Jesus’ teachings, and yet most Christian writers ignore these materials as seemingly irrelevant to modern Christian life.
But Jesus and the apostles saw their time as remarkably parallel to the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that is, shortly before the destruction of their city and Temple as a result of God’s wrath.
Hence, when Jesus speaks of being the “Good Shepherd,” he refers to himself not only as God — but he’s implicitly declaring that the times of Ezekiel are back — the leaders of the Jews are leading them down a road that leads to destruction. The sin isn’t idolatry in the same sense as 500 years before, but it was a rejection of God’s true nature and teaching, evidenced by their rejection of God’s Messiah — God’s true image.
This is the sin that Jesus was most concerned with in John 10. He was urging faith in himself based on his fulfillment of his role as spiritual Shepherd of the Jews. Therefore, the most important teaching modern shepherds — God’s under-shepherds — can do is to call the people to accept and live according to the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
If our leaders don’t hold Jesus up as an example of how to live before God as Christ-like people — you know, “Christians” — we’re wasting our time. Indeed, we’re scattering the sheep. Far better to resign!
Now, here’s the upside-down, crazy irony of it all. The call isn’t toward having visitors at your mother’s funeral or in your sickroom at the hospital. The work of the elders/shepherds/overseers is not one more fringe benefit — as though heaven were not enough. It’s not about picking the church with the best selection of goods and services. That attitude is from our capitalistic culture and has nothing to do with Christianity at all.
Indeed, the worst attitude we can bring to church is that, because we’ve paid for this place and these services, we’re entitled, we’re in charge, and we are in control — just like consumers at a retail store. That’s exactly backwards. We gave so generously for so many years, not to gain power, but because we surrendered power when we submitted to Jesus and his church at baptism.
Thus, the work of a shepherd is — by example, by training (equipping), by teaching — to build up the flock so that the members — as bearers of the image of God — attend the funeral of someone else’s mother, attend the bedside of someone with no friends at all, who’d be all alone in the hospital but for them — as well as the elders. That would be true service and submission. That would be living consistently with what why we were saved to be. We gave so much because we love so much, and therefore we continue to give because we continue to love.
But (you know what?) if we do that, we’ll find plenty of people present to comfort and strengthen us when we need it. That’s just how it works. If we’ll invest ourselves in people, we’ll receive dividends down the road.
We won’t need a ministry and organization to make it happen. It’ll happen because we’ll be bound together in our congregation by strands of love arising from years invested in ministry.
But many a Christian has the attitude that the church owes him counseling and comforting services. It’s no longer the natural consequence of loving relationships. Rather, it’s become an entitlement, bought and paid for and therefore something to be demanded.
Hence, the preacher, rather than being a declarer of the gospel who calls the members to sacrifice, is seen as our paid servant to sacrifice and serve for us — so we don’t have to.
We once had a member sick in the hospital. He complained that no one from church had come to visit him. When the elders considered his complaint, it turned out that three elders had actually been to his hospital room. When asked about this, the man replied, “Well, no one important came!” You see, he was mad that he wasn’t important enough to qualify for a visit from the preacher — as though we should measure the value of our members by who does the visiting!
When the preacher’s visits to the sick become goods to be demanded by people who wouldn’t take off any time to attend the funeral of the preacher’s mother — then we’ve turned Christianity into a commodity rather than a relationship. More importantly, we’ve completely forgotten that we go to church to learn to become like Jesus, not to have our egos stroked and our consumer demands met.
Therefore, yes, it’s entirely right and necessary that elders visit members in the hospital and attend the funerals of their loved ones — but only if the members see this an example to be followed, not a service to be expected and even demanded.
Hence, as more and more elderships move from a board model to a “shepherding” model, it’s imperative that they see shepherding, not as a free counseling service, but as a mentoring program designed to call every member into Christ-like living — that is, selfless service, submission, sacrifice — and when God says so — even suffering. And this is much harder that being a comforter.
But that has to be the conscious intent of any shepherding ministry. It has to be stated and evaluated. It’s great (and very, very important) to heal marriages, and elders should strive to do just that. Absolutely! But if we’d teach our members to be more submissive and less selfish and entitled, there’d be far fewer failing marriages to heal.
Just the same, if our members were truly servant-hearted, submissive people, the hospital rooms would be so crowded with beloved fellow Christians that no one would bleat a word of protest if the preacher happened to be out of town. He wouldn’t be missed. After all, who wouldn’t rather measure themselves by the number of friends who love them enough to visit the hospital rather than the office held by the one church visitor who came by that day?
In short, true shepherding is leading the people to do what the elders do. This includes caring for the hurting and diseased — which should result in all members doing the same, and no one imagining that they’ve been disrespected because an elder or minister doesn’t do the visiting.
In fact, in a proper mentoring relationship, an elder should be able to release his students to go visit on their own with no preacher or elder present. And to be visited by members trained by their elders to visit the sick on their own would be the sign of a deeply healthy congregation — which is no longer a retail provider of services but a body shaped in the image of Jesus of Nazareth.