As I prepare sermons each week, I download and read the scriptures called out in the Common Lectionary, a three year plan that walks us through most major teachings in the Bible. I don’t always use every selection but as I was reading these scriptures recently I was struck by a passage in Ezekiel that would, on the surface, seem to be a rallying place for the Occupy Wall Street movement and I was, frankly, surprised that it had not already been used to proclaim that ‘GOD WILL DESTROY THE FAT CATS’. On the surface, this seems to be the message but that didn’t seem quite right, and it bothered me. Before we go any farther, here is Ezekiel 34:16 (NIV)
I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
God says that he will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak but he will destroy the strong and the sleek. Many translations declare that God will destroy the strong and the fat. That certainly sounds like a condemnation of the Wall Street bankers, politicians in Washington, and most other ‘fat cats’ but, as I noted earlier, something about that bothered me and it didn’t take too long to figure out why. The Bible is full of sheep/shepherd imagery. God, kings and church leaders are often compared to shepherds and the people of God are likened to sheep under God’s care. This imagery is common because it was (and still is) a good picture of how we relate to God and most people who read the story understand how sheep (and shepherds) act. The problem that I have with this particular passage is that destroying strong sheep and fat sheep is not what shepherds would normally do. Most responsible shepherds want strong sheep and fat sheep. Breeding for these characteristics improves the flock as a whole and makes it both stronger and more valuable. It would be irresponsible for any shepherd to destroy his best breeding stock, so what is it that Ezekiel is trying to tell us?
As is often the case, the key to interpreting this is found not simply in reading to find what seems to agree with your cause, but in reading more of the passage to put things in context. Knowing the analogy, that a good and wise shepherd would not normally destroy his best breeding stock is a good start and ignites our curiosity to look deeper. If we keep reading from Ezekiel we discover these verses as well:
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.
If we read what comes prior to verse 16, we discover that the entire section is a condemnation upon the leaders of God’s people, the shepherds who have neglected their duty to God and have scattered the sheep. It is these fat sheep that God condemns. Unlike some in the Occupy movement, God does not declare that wealth equates with evil, that all rick and powerful people are bad, or that they should be destroyed. God’s proclamation is that wealth and power are given along with a responsibility to care for those that have been entrusted to you. God condemns Israel’s leaders because they have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost and they have ruled harshly and brutally while enriching themselves.
Simply put, the strong and the fat are not condemned because they are strong and fat, but because they used their strength to abuse the weak instead of using it to care for them.
In my ministry I have had the good fortune to meet several people who have significant wealth, but many of them are also kind, compassionate and generous followers of Jesus Christ who treat their employees well and who use their wealth to care for others as well as the church. In these words of Ezekiel we do not find a broad condemnation of everyone with wealth and power, but only those who do not use what they have been given in a responsible way. This is not a condemnation of wealth and power, but a caution to all of us who lead others, whether as pastors, doctors, lawyers, employers, shop foremen, teachers, committee chairpersons or any other position of responsibility. God does not intend to destroy the ‘fat cats’ but he will do whatever he needs to do to protect his flock.
All of God’s people are expected to heal the sick, strengthen the weak, bind the wounds of the injured, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and to lead with tenderness and compassion. If we fail to do that, then we are in serious trouble regardless of our relative wealth or power.