Fat Sheep. Lean Sheep. (Ezekiel 34:20)

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them, “Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.”

Ezekiel 34:20

God has been speaking to Ezekiel about the shepherds of Israel; the leadership, particularly the religious leadership. God has already said that the leadership have been feeding themselves and not taking care of the flock, making them the worst kind of shepherds. After that, God turns His attention and His discourse to the fat sheep.

I know that God is speaking in metaphor here. I know this because God explains His metaphor in verse 31. It is one of those places in scripture where God just comes right out and says, “This is metaphor.” Since the metaphor is equating people to sheep (or goats), what does it mean that there are fat sheep and lean sheep?

God gives some insight, but it is also metaphorical, so this interpretation is subject to revision in light of better understanding. God speaks of the fat sheep feeding on the good pasture and trampling the rest; drinking the clear water and fouling the rest; pushing with shoulder and butting with horns.

My understanding of pasture and water is twofold. First, those terms, in their most obvious sense, refer to the basic needs of life. It is entirely possible that God is calling out people who not only have plenty of the basics, but also ruin what basics remain so they become unusable. Essentially, they grow prosperous while ruining the livelihoods of others. It is possible, and God knows there are plenty of people — even, I am sad to admit, believers — who do this today. Second, those terms might refer to the basics of spiritual life. The people might have been pushed away from nourishing spiritual fodder for things that kill; from worshiping the True and Living God to worship of idols and things that cannot really accomplish anything on our behalf.

The other images — those of jostling and butting heads — feel a little on the nose to me. There are plenty of instances in life where we jostle one another for position; for what we perceive to be something good. Examples abound of places in life where we lock horns and butt heads with one another. We even use that very language to describe the action.

All of the imagery boils down to a couple truths that come to my mind. I am sure that others will see it differently, but it is metaphor and can hold up to multiple interpretations.

Truth number one is that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. This truth is reiterated all over The Bible, so I am confident that it is true, regardless of whether or not it is what was intended to be communicated by this metaphor. Pride lifts us up in our own eyes and makes us think that we are more important than others. This self-importance can and often does lead to the kinds of behavior God describes: taking for yourself and ruining for others, jostling for position, butting heads with others. Humility recognizes the importance of others over self. Pride asserts the self over others. As Paul wrote: Do not just look out for yourself, but also look out for your brethren (Philippians 2:4).

Truth number two is that God is the One Who will ultimately judge between us all. If I think I have been wronged, I need to let it go — God will render judgment in the end. This does not mean I should not confront my fellow believers and speak the truth in love, but that I need to let go of the butt hurt that came with it. This both unburdens me of the emotional distress and sets me on a path to being able to exhort my fellow believer. I am much more likely to be able to speak truth in love if I have let go of the hurt that the action caused.

This whole thing makes me think it could be written up as a Seussian bit of rhyme, à la:

Fat sheep, lean sheep,
Kind sheep, mean sheep

I will have to consider that as I go through the day. With that, I need to meditate on the reminders that I need to be humble and look out for my fellow believers as well as let go of the hurt that comes with others not being obedient to this command, since God will render judgment.

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