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Homily by Margaret Vazey

Easter 4, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 15, 2011

Jeremiah 23: 1-8; John 10: 1-10

Discerning the Good Shepherd/Coping with Empire’

In the New Testament reading, Jesus states that “I am the gate”, and “I am the good shepherd”, and “All who came before me are thieves and bandits”. In other words he is saying that anybody who tells you that there is another way to live, except the way that he has taught and demonstrated, is a thief and a bandit, because any other way of living, will not lead to an abundant life.

Jesus’ teachings were paralleled much earlier in human history, by the teachings of Jeremiah. Like Jesus, Jeremiah lived at a time when an outside imperial force was threatening his country. He was called into a prophetic ministry about 630 years before Jesus was born.

Jeremiah’s native land, the Southern kingdom of Judah, was caught in a great power squeeze between three great empires – Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. The King of Judah tried to form an alliance with Egypt to protect his country from invasion.

Eventually, in 587 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the first great temple, the one built by King Solomon, and carried off many of the leading citizens of Judah to the great city of Babylon, at that time, a centre of advanced cultural and scientific learning. (Carrying off the local leaders and artisans was a strategy to reduce a conquered colony to acquiescence.)

Over the 40 or so troubled years leading up to this traumatic event, the people had turned away from the covenant teachings. Jeremiah predicted that they would be punished by God for their lack of faith and for listening to the false prophets, for following false shepherds, for worshipping pagan idols, and for not living the way they had been taught according to the Ten Commandments and the Covenant. Although he was not one of the people carried off to Babylon, he had anticipated this event. He felt that God was using the invaders to bring His Chosen People back to the way of life demanded by the Covenant.

Jeremiah made a yoke of straps and bars to wear to show his people that they must willingly submit to King Nebuchanezzar and the yoke of Babylon (Jeremiah 27 v.2), and later urged his king, King Zedekiah, to surrender in order to save the city of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 38:17-18). To Jeremiah, to live with the Empire was an act of faithful obedience, resisting the Empire was to resist the will of God.

Jeremiah stayed in the occupied country of Judah to give hope to those who remained, and to help them to put their lives together again. Eventually he had to go into exile in Egypt.

In relation to the Babylonian Empire, Jeremiah outlined two obligations for his people: the first was to accommodate the Empire without giving their primary loyalty to it; the second was to return to living locally by the Covenant, that is, they were to obey the Ten Commandments, and all that that implied. Socio-economically, everyone was to have a fair share of the resources of their local community.

About 600 years later in a Jerusalem occupied by the Romans, a boy started asking questions about the Covenant, and later taught his people how to act on it locally, how to interpret it, and how to regulate it with love and compassion.

We now know that the socio-political challenge was too much for the empire of his day, so he was crucified by agents of the Roman Empire. After the death of Jesus, the great Second Temple would be destroyed by the Romans.

Why do we bother with all this history? Why do we keep reading the old texts, the Old Testament and the New Testament? Is it relevant to us today? Are we living within an empire?

Empires are geopolitical realities. In the world today as well as in the ancient world people live either within or within the shadow of an empire, or within the memory of empire (e.g., Old Paris, red bus tour, buildings crowned with gilded sculptures).

Are we likely to be living within a different empire sometime in the future? Our fortunes are tied to the empire that claims us. Aggressive military policies make for defining moments in our history, both in ancient times and our times.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus were trying to teach their people how to live with each other, on an everyday basis, within the Empire – whether it was Babylonian or Roman. Their wise, caring, stern but loving voices speak the same message to us today.

The teaching of Jeremiah, and later, of Jesus, is telling us that no matter which empire we find ourselves in, as Christians, we still have the same two old obligations:

The first is to accommodate the reality of Empire without giving our primary loyalty to it: Jesus said “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s ...” .

The second is to live every day by the Covenant (which for Christians is the old covenant of the Ten Commandments, in the light of the new commandment of Jesus Christ).

We do get confused by films such as The Empire Strikes Back, where the “resistance fighters” are shown to be wholly good in their fight against the dreadful enemy, Darth Vader and his cronies. But this is one empire against another empire. It gives us a distorted, confusing message.

Jeremiah warned his people to not worship false gods, and to be on the alert for false shepherds, false prophets, and false messages.

In today’s words: to be suspicious of the spin doctors, the lobbyists, the news jocks, the politicians who try to sell us a biased account of what is happening, the TV ads which try to sell us things that we do not need or cannot afford, the magazines which encourage us to be greedy, and covetous.

The song “Time in Babylon” by modern American songwriters, Emmylou Harris and Jill Cunniff, uses “Babylon” as a metaphor for “Empire”. This song reminds us of our propensity to be taken in by false shepherds, and our need for a good shepherd. This song challenges us to consider how the “Empire” is affecting our lives: how we act, think, and relate to each other. Amen.

Margaret Vazey

References:

 1. Brueggemann, Walter, Out of Babylon, Abington Press, 2010

 2. The HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV, Harper Collins, 1993

 3. http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/harris-emmylou/time-in-babylon-10435.html