It is very tempting in our contemporary world to despair of our political leaders. With governments changing every few years we all get a chance to despair when our lot are out of office and the other lot are in – there’s something for everyone. Over the last few years, however, the older political loyalties have been frayed. Both Labour and Conservative parties have become less varied and have moved more to the right or the left than ever before in my lifetime. Lifelong voters of one party, vote for their polar opposites to get a third party they dislike more out of office. Brexit has meant that both major UK parties, Conservatives and Labour, have struggled to find a way forward. Most Conservative members are pro Brexit as are many of their MPS, most Labour MPs and members are pro EU but many Labour voters are determined Brexiteers – leaving both parties struggling to know how to respond. Add in the fact we have a minority government struggling to get through vote by vote we’re all tempted to despair and moan about our political leaders. It’s a national pastime after all!
We’re not new in doing this – when we hear the passage from Jeremiah we realise that people have been criticising governments for thousands of years. Jeremiah uses the term “shepherds” to mean the rulers and governing elite of the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah. In Jewish thought at the time God the rulers had to act as shepherds of the people, to care for them, to ensure that all were fed, that society was fair, and that they didn’t forget their agreement with God. Those in power, the shepherds, weren’t very impressed by this troublesome cleric telling them they were wrong and letting the people, and God, down.
Jeremiah doesn’t just criticise – he is savage “you have scattered my flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them.” So, God, Jeremiah, says will scatter the shepherds. And worse God will raise up new shepherds who will look after the people properly.
It’s like the Moderator of the Church of Scotland going down to Holyrood and telling the Scottish Government that they are wrong, that God will scatter them and raise up a new government. People who do this tend not to win many friends. For his pains the rulers of the people threw Jeremiah down a well hoping that would shut him up!
Psalm 23 is often thought to have been written by King David who started his life as a shepherd. It is an interesting comparison to the passage from Jeremiah where the shepherds of the people are castigated. In the Psalm God is revealed as the Good Shepherd who ensures his people don’t want, to feeds his flock in green pastures, who restores souls, leads in right paths and even in the darkest moments of life walks with his people.
Now if we had leaders like that – we’d be rejoicing with David and realising that we’re guests at a feast, that goodness and mercy would indeed follow us all our lives.
I suspect that Jeremiah’s hearers would have had this Psalm in mind when he railed against the bad shepherds but what do we do with all this?
Expect the Best
First we have to expect the best from our leaders – not see them through rose tinted spectacles, but make sure they know we expect the best. We expect honesty, we expect transparency, we expect them to look after the poorest and most vulnerable, we expect them to remember they will be called to account. That might mean we have to let them know, frequently, what we expect.
Model what we Expect
Of course expecting good things from others is easy – we have to model what we expect in ourselves and in our church. It’s no use expecting the politicians to be honest if we aren’t, it’s no use expecting them to be transparent if we, or our institutions aren’t, it’s no use expecting them to look after the poor and vulnerable if we don’t. It might mean they call us to account if we are hypocrities – that’s hard.
Trust in God
Our Psalm is striking today. It’s the best known, and probably the most well used, of all the Psalms. It’s become traditional to use it at funerals and it’s been set to many different tunes. It is, however, all about trust. Earthly shepherds might let us down, but God never will.
On this day when we have baptised Maisie [at our baptisms] promises were made and, of course we all mean/t them. Yet it is inevitable that, in some way or other, that we, at times, will [have] failed to keep those promises. That’s about what it is to be human – it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it does mean we need to be realistic and work on keeping them being ready to forgive ourselves, and others, when the promises aren’t kept.
Yet the One who will never fail, the One who will always keep His promises is God. The Good Shepherd who leads us, surrounds us in love and desires the best for us calls us to an ever more faithful life.
We may enjoy railing against our politicians. We may agree with Jeremiah that they are bad shepherds but our trust must always been in the Good Shepherd and our trust in Him leads us to keep our promises just as He always keeps his.
Will you pray with me
O Christ, our tender shepherd,
you know how anxious we are
and how easily we stray.
Let us hear your voice
above the clamour of all others,
that we may learn who truly feeds us
and find our way home to you,
our loving Lord, Amen.