Our scripture readings this morning are about our relationship to God and to each other, reminding us to let God be God, and let others be themselves. When we do those things, then we can truly be ourselves, because we stop spending so much time and energy trying to take care of God’s business and the business of the people around us, giving us time to work on becoming the best person we can be. By doing that, we will truly bless the world and the people around us, and truly bless ourselves.
The prophet Ezekiel, whom we read first this morning, is reminding us that God is the shepherd and judge of all, and we are not. We should all be thankful for that, because God is a much better shepherd and much more merciful judge than any of us could ever be. As Ezekiel puts it: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep … says the Lord God … I shall judge between sheep and sheep..,” Our job is to be sheep, not the shepherd. Of course, our job is to be the best sheep we can be, and to show others by example the best way to go, but we must never try to force them to go our way. Saying that is not a call to fatalism or not caring about others and the paths they follow; we can never just happily let people wander off onto ways that are dangerous (like sheep getting lost), but really the only way we can show people the best way is to go there ourselves and offer help to those who want to follow. We must also remember that just as there are many dangerous paths, there are also many good ones — the best path for us is not always the best one for others. As the song says: “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” (U2 — One)
In the gospel reading this morning, Jesus continues this idea of helping people along the way rather than forcing them to follow. He makes it clear that righteousness does not involve making people behave the way we think they should; righteousness involves offering help to people who need it. By offering help to people, we walk the path of righteousness, and others are free to follow. This is where the analogy of humans as sheep breaks down: humans are not dumb animals. We are free individuals made in the image of God and worthy of the utmost respect. Until we realize that fact and practice it as the guiding force in our relationships with others, we really can’t offer help to others, because truly helping people is in no way akin to throwing scraps to dogs. Our desire to help people must spring from the recognition that we are all equally unique children of God, that we all have something to offer others, and that others have equally valuable gifts to offer us. We are free to offer and accept gifts, but we can never judge their validity. God is the judge. In order to make a right decision, a judge must have all the information about the case, and God is the only one who ever really has all the information. For that we should be thankful, because as was stated before, God is a much more merciful judge than we could ever be,
Of course we can use our discernment and wisdom regarding the things that are offered to us, in order to decide if accepting them will be the best for our own growth. We should also use our wisdom and discernment regarding the paths that we see others following, so that we can warn them if they are heading toward danger. But we must always do those things with prayer and humility, making sure we are motivated by love, rather than by our own preferences, fears, and prejudices. Learning how to do this — how to make valid judgments to guide our actions and words rather than invalid judgments concerning the worth of others — takes a lot of prayer and honesty about ourselves, but it is work that is well worth the effort, because it helps to make the world a little better place.
There is a famous saying from Lord Acton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The idea was not original to him; William Pitt in 1770 said: “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” And before that Alphonse Lamartine said: “absolute power corrupts the best natures.” Of course the same idea was around long before these recorded instances, but they are all wrong – power does not corrupt us; we corrupt power. Things don’t corrupt people – we corrupt things. Power, like food, sex, and all the other good gifts from God are given to us to help us live good lives. Yet we sometimes (not always, maybe not most of the time) let those things ruin our lives and the lives of those around us. Only God has absolute power, and God is not corrupted by it .We should let God reign, not try to subvert God’s reign by assuming that we should judge others and make them follow the path we see fit. We should let God be God, let other people be themselves, and by doing so, let ourselves be ourselves.
We don’t do that because we are filthy pests crawling in the dust before the throne of a cruel God who rules according to arbitrary whims. We do it because our true dignity lies in the fact that we are children of God, and as heirs to the throne, we have a share in divine authority and power. So we must base all our actions on the integrity and legitimacy inherent in ourselves and everyone else as royal offspring. God rules by living with us, serving us, and showing us the right path by traveling it with us. The responsibility we have for each other should take the same form — leading by serving and acting, rather than by demanding and legislating.
Of course, we do have certain functions in society that put some in positions of authority over others – such as civil government, superiors in a monastic setting, and hierarchy in a work situation — and we should faithfully carry out our duties in those situations, whether it is to obey or to command or a little of both. Our world would soon fall to subhuman standards if those types of structures were not honored, and it will fall to subhuman standards if those who are given power choose to corrupt it. But as far as personal dignity and ultimate freedom go, we are all equals in the eyes of a God who also choose to partake of our equal status by living as one of us in Jesus. God is God, We are not. How lucky we are to be ourselves and no one else. May we be the best selves that we were created to be, and may we help others do the same. AMEN