To the extent that we influence and manage a part of the world we live in, we all have leadership responsibilities of some kind or other – even if the only person we’re managing is ourselves. And we’ve said that words matter. The language we use to describe a role affects how we understand and evaluate it. Over a number of weeks, we’re considering the metaphor of the shepherd for understanding how God views leadership. We’ve seen how the idea of a shepherd points to the need for accountability (See: What’s in a Name?) but also compassion (See: Why Good Leaders Look for ‘Thirsty Eyes’). Today, we look at productivity and provision: how a shepherd feeds the sheep.
In the Ancient Near East, sheep and goats were highly valued. They could be milked for five months of the year and this provided a variety of dairy products (e.g. milk, cheese, butter, yogurt) as well as fat for things like candles and soap. Sheep wool was an important product and goat hair was used for sacks, rope and tents. Sheep and goat skins were utilized in clothing, to store liquids, and even as parchment for writing. Both animals were also prized as sacrifices. While the meat was eaten in some religious contexts (e.g. the peace offering), only the wealthy could afford to eat meat on a regular basis.
The point of mentioning the many uses of sheep and goats is to note how much they provided for their owners. They were productive animals that delivered many benefits. But the sheep needed to be fed.
The problem was that greedy sheep owners could drive production from the sheep and feed them as little as possible. God uses this image to condemn leaders for their abuse of citizens and workers in Israel. In Ezekiel 34:2-3, God says, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.”
But God doesn’t just make accusations, he promises to set things right. He says, “No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them” (v. 10). The message is clear. If you’re overseeing production, you’re responsible for provision. God won’t put up with the injustice of ballooning profits and starving workers. It doesn’t mean that workers will always get everything they want, but God sees injustice in nations, companies and families and takes it seriously. And God promises to provide for those who have been denied their rightful provision. He says, “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. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:14-15).
When Jesus came, He famously called Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). He had compassion on His followers and at times miraculously provided food for them (John 6:1-14). He also charged His disciples to share food with the hungry (Matthew 25:35-40). But He wasn’t just concerned for people’s physical provision. He also cared about people’s spiritual hunger. He knew that spiritual leaders could be big on expectations and low on spiritual nourishment (Matthew 23:4; Luke 11:46).
After Peter denied Jesus, he and the other disciples went back to fishing. But Jesus came to them on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. He cooked breakfast for the disciples and singled out Peter. He asked him three times whether he loved Him, and each time charged Peter with providing for the flock: “Feed my lambs” (v. 15); “Tend my sheep” (v. 16); “Feed my sheep” (v. 17). Here the call was not so much to provide good wages for workers, but to provide spiritual nourishment for Christ’s followers. Peter had learned much of the Word of God and the good news from Jesus, but because of his failings, he was in danger of keeping that spiritual nourishment to himself. True love, Jesus showed him, means sharing what we’ve been given and teaching others what we’ve been taught.
Seeing leadership through the lens of a shepherd warns against demanding production without ensuring provision. Companies don’t just exist to make their shareholders rich. Churches don’t just exist as ministry machines to exhaust their members. And families don’t just exist for parents to pile expectations on their children. The sheep must be fed, or the leaders are neglecting their job.
Our world has lots of leaders, but it needs a lot more shepherds!
In awe of Him,
For more information, check out Timothy Laniak’s book, Shepherds After My Own Heart, which has been my guide in understanding the role of a shepherd in this series.