Formations 12.17.2017: Robert Mugabe’s Legacy

Ezekiel 34:11-16; Luke 3:7-14

Robert Mugabe

On November 21, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president of Zimbabwe after thirty-seven years of rule. Following his country’s transition from British colonial rule (when it was called Rhodesia), Mugabe oversaw heavy investment in the nation’s social services. Health care and education in particular saw great improvements. These early successes, however, were ultimately wiped out by Mugabe’s innumerable human rights abuses. In the words of Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International,

During his 37 years in power, he presided over the brutal repression of political opponents, established a culture of impunity for himself and his cronies, and his government implemented a series of policies that have had disastrous consequences for his people.

The Old Testament often uses the metaphor of shepherds to speak of Israel’s leaders. In Ezekiel 34, God is likened to a kind and competent shepherd. The chapter begins, however, with a condemnation of Israel’s leaders as unscrupulous shepherds more interested in their own advancement than in the people they supposedly serve. No doubt many Zimbabweans these days can identify with the prophet’s words.

This note of accusation finds an echo in the preaching of John the Baptist. John called for people to produce the fruit of repentance and calls on people in power—soldiers and tax collectors—to act justly toward the powerless.

As we await the coming of Christ, it’s good for us to reflect on what his coming will mean, especially for those who enjoy positions of privilege in the world. When the Lord comes, Ezekiel reminds us, we must be ready, because even though God will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak, God will also destroy the strong and thus tend his sheep with justice (Ezek 34:16).

It’s especially important to reflect on the possibility that the privileged people are us.

Deprose Muchena, “Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe’s Legacy,” Amnesty International, 4 Dec 2017 https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/12/zimbabwe-robert-mugabe-legacy/.

Discussion

• What comfort can believers find in Ezekiel’s description of God as their shepherd?
• Why does God in Ezekiel threaten to destroy “the strong”?
• How might John’s instructions for those who own a surplus of clothing or who work as tax collectors or soldiers relate to this question?
• How might these harsh sayings and forthright demands lead to security for God’s people?

Reference Shelf

Shepherds of Israel

The command to Jeremiah and Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel (Jer 23:1; Ezek 34:2) sets up the biblical standard of accountability for religious leaders in both the OT and the NT. They have a greater responsibility, and their dereliction will receive a greater punishment. Shepherds are condemned for feeding themselves, rather than the flock (Ezek 34:2); for clothing themselves with wool and slaughtering the fat sheep (Ezek 34:3); for failing to strengthen and heal the sick sheep (Ezek 34:4); for failing to bring back the straying sheep (Ezek 34:4); and leaving them scattered through all the hills and mountains as prey for every wild beast (Ezek 34:5). Contrasting with the high example of God as a caring shepherd, this conduct of unfaithful shepherds of the spiritual flock stands as a warning throughout the whole of scripture.

Wayne E. Ward, “Shepherd,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 819.

John’s Ethical Teaching

Verses 10-14 are found only in Luke, and sound very much like sayings of Jesus found later in the Gospel. In this scene, John responds to three audiences who want more specific instruction on how to live. To the crowds, he says that anyone with more than enough food or clothing should share with those who have nothing. Jesus’ version will be “give to everyone who begs from you” or “lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:29, 35). John’s version sounds more like equity, while Jesus’ version sounds more like sacrifice, but both sayings are moving in the same direction: one of the fruits of repentance is divesting oneself of wealth and providing for the poor.

The second audience is tax collectors. The Romans required provinces like Judea to pay tribute annually. So for the privilege of having Roman troops permanently stationed in their territory and a Roman governor having final say on what went on, Judeans would have to cough up a certain amount of cash. Ultimately the senate and emperor were responsible for setting the amount they expected the provinces to pay and for deciding how to collect the money; from time to time, the provinces would complain of abuse and corruption, and there would be a reform of the methods. During Jesus’ lifetime, the collection of taxes in a province was sold to wealthy people, who would then collect the amount owed to the Romans, plus whatever bribes had to be paid in order to keep the contract, plus whatever profit the tax contractor and all his employees were going to make. So we should imagine a network of people, with some wealthy tax-franchise owners at the top and the actual tax collectors—the people who assessed taxes on things that crossed the borders or on property or on crops—being much closer to ordinary people in their wealth, but still wealthier than average. It is these bottom-level people who are meant in v. 12.

John’s word for them is to collect “nothing beyond what has been set for you,” which could refer either to an amount of money that they needed to collect, or to the orders given them by their superiors. We wonder, then, whether the low-level tax collector could make a living by only collecting what his bosses required, or whether anyone would want to take the job under those conditions. When John says, “Only follow orders,” is he actually saying, “Rethink your priorities—there is no way to do this job ethically and profitably”? Even if he were only trying to prohibit graft at the bottom level of tax collection, the change would have been a step away from the abuse inherent in the Roman system, and a fruit of real repentance. In 19:1-10, we will see how a chief tax collector, upon meeting Jesus, addressed this very issue.

The third audience was soldiers. There were several different sorts of soldiers in Judea, but unfortunately Luke does not specify which sort he meant. The Judean prefects had two wings of cavalry and four cohorts of infantry, according to Josephus, and most of these troops were recruited locally. The temple also had guards whose job was to keep order and provide some security for the large amounts of money in the treasury. There were also soldiers under the command of Antipas, who arrested John (3:19) and who might have had reason to want a report on his activities. Whatever sort of soldiers Luke has in mind were likely to have been Jews, not Gentiles, seeking advice from the prophet.

John’s advice to them was to live within their means and to avoid using their power as soldiers to extort more money than was due them. Again, we want to know whether this sort of behavior was tacitly expected of soldiers—was the system set up to encourage pilfering or extortion? If so, then John’s request to refrain from shaking people down or blackmailing them would have sounded more radical to Luke’s readers than it may to us.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 90–91.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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