April 13: For Lack of a Shepherd

Therefore the people wander like sheep;
   they suffer for lack of a shepherd.
My anger is hot against the shepherds,
   and I will punish the leaders;
for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah,
   and will make them like his proud war-horse.
Zechariah 10:2-3

In our political climate, scandals are a dime a dozen.

In the city of Dallas, a county commissioner is being tried for corruption; in our state, the attorney general has been indicted on securities fraud and awaits trial; and in the state of Alabama, a governor has just resigned over a sex scandal. And every day, the national news breaks new revelations about connections between people in the current administration and Russia.

We hear of so much corruption, that we are becoming immune to the phenomenon. We are slowly becoming resolved to the idea that all leaders are hopelessly beholden to certain special interests or agendas, and that we will never know the truth about what goes on behind the closed doors of executive suites and White House conference rooms.

The prophet Zechariah lived in a scandal-ridden time, too. He referred to the nation’s leaders as “shepherds,” a common symbol for leadership, inferring that one of the primary characteristics of a leader is to care for, nurture, and protect his/her constituents. In Zechariah’s case, this applied both to kings and priests. They were responsible for maintaining the covenant between God and the people.

Apparently, these shepherds had become self-serving, power-hungry, and greedy, and God’s wrath was about to be turned against them. But the focus of God’s anger is not so much against the leaders’ profiteering, but upon the fact that they have left the people to suffer. God is concerned about those in the leaders’ care, in whose name they are supposed to govern.

Maundy Thursday is a day to reflect on the dramatic contrast between two kinds of leadership. Zechariah paints a picture of leaders who allow their flocks to wander aimlessly, scattered and lost. Jesus, on the other hand, acts out a model of servant leadership, which puts the flock first.

In Matthew 9:36, as Jesus visited towns and villages in the Judean countryside, we read that he had compassion on the crowds, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This is a reference to Zechariah’s text; Jesus saw the same thing happening in his own time. He could see that a ruling elite were out of touch with, and neglectful of, the people.

And on the day of his arrest, Jesus gave his disciples a powerful example of what a true leader looks like. Before sharing the Passover meal with them, “he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself … he poured water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet” (John 13:4-5). Jesus engaged in an intimate way with each disciple — even Judas! — and communicated his compassion for every one of them.

When he was finished, Jesus made it clear that this was the way all leaders should act. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example” (13:14-15).

This is the standard that has been set for all shepherds, whether they serve in government, civic institutions, or churches. It is the benchmark of servant leadership: when one assumes a position of leadership, one’s primary responsibility is to love the people whom one leads, and to act out of that love, which puts the people’s interests first.

If only the news were full of stories about that …

Prayer: God, in my own sphere of influence, make me a servant leader. Help me to put other people’s interests first. Teach me how to wash people’s feet. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Everyone is a leader. Who are you responsible for? Do you manage someone at work? Are you an elected official? Do you teach a classroom of students? Are you a stay-at-home parent? Take time today to perform a random act of kindness for someone for whom you are responsible.