Father Frederico B. Gomez de Esparza was a Catholic priest affectionately known throughout his parish in Yuma, Arizona as Father Fred. He was a priest that hailed from Mexico and who served bilingual parishes in Arizona. By all accounts, Father Fred did his job well. Everybody loved him. He was known for his sermon mastery and knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church. He also knew the Scriptures, administered the sacraments, comforted the sick, conducted wedding and funerals - everything that clergy are supposed to do. He was later found out of having no credentials and was counterfeit. The parishioners who trusted him were deceived, describing him as a "wolf in sheep clothing."
The discovery of counterfeit clergy can often cast a shadow on others who serve faithfully. Incidents like this, however, can also help us clergy take a more in-depth look at Shepherding God's people authentically. What happens when a pastor isn't who he or she appears to be?
The weeping prophet Jeremiah was troubled throughout his career by those who pretended to be real prophets but were not (27:16-22; 28; 29:8, 9). They preached a straightforward message of "peace in our time" and were no doubt popular. Here the prophet denounces them. He calls them "shepherds that destroy and scatter sheep of God's pasture for lack of visitation."
Three significant accusations come against civil rulers who remind us of many of our politicians today.
- Destroy. "Destroy." They crushed the people with their unreasonable demands and restrictions.
- Dispersion. "Scattered my flock, and driven them away." Through their wicked policies, the people had to move and sometimes leave the country. In our land, this corresponds to the movement of businesses to foreign countries and the movement of people from slum-infested areas because of government policies.
- Disinterest. "Have not visited them." The leaders were interested in their own positions not the people.
But proper shepherding was precisely what the kings of Judah had failed to do. Jeremiah's prophetic word singled out Jehoiakim as a prime example. His charge against false shepherds is devastating.
With an exclamation of woe, God spoke through Jeremiah a message of hope that after this time of exile God would "raise up shepherds" to lead them. The ultimate shepherd for Jeremiah is in restoring the Davidic kingship. This new Shepherd-King, the Messiah, would rule over a reunited flock and bring salvation and safety to his people with "justice and righteousness." "I will gather the remnant... bring them again to their folds. God's prophetic word of restoring Israel's future. Israel's best days are ahead. Like Israel our best days are in front of us. God has a remnant.
"And I said, oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness" (Ps. 55:6-7).
The Gospel lesson for today from Mark 6 shows the disciples exhausted and in need of being recharged from the demands of ministry. The disciples needed a quiet, deserted place to get alone with God. The Lord cared about them; he cared about their exhaustion. They had poured themselves into his mission and into the lives of people. He knew they needed rest and rekindling, refuge and consoling, relaxation and worship. He had compassion upon them, so he said, "Come ye apart ... and rest a while." "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Jesus was a superstar, and the crowds throng to him reaching the place where Jesus' ship was to dock. In great anticipation, the crowd had grown to five thousand men not counting women and children. "But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matthew 9:36).
"For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls" (1 Peter 2:25). Later the prophet exclaims, "My people have been lost sheep: their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains: they have forgotten their resting place" (Jeremiah 50:6).
The challenge as pastors we often succumb to is losing sight of people who are as sheep without a shepherd. Contrariwise, Jesus was moved with deep, intense compassion because the people were as sheep without a shepherd.
Sheep without a shepherd are bewildered not knowing where they are or where they are going. They get lost ever so quickly and cannot find their way back to the flock. So it is with people. People without the shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, are bewildered. They wander about, getting lost in place after place, never finding the way to true life.
Even if a pastor isn't in the liturgical limelight, he or she may still feel driven to perform according to the pronouncements of church growth gurus or the example of peers they perceive as being more successful with larger churches and bigger salaries.
Jeremiah's warning to the kings of Judah should hit us present-day shepherds about six inches above the clerical collar whether we're mega-church or mini-church shepherds.
The same thing happens when we look at the people in our congregations as numbers to be counted, as "giving units" who will help us build a more prominent building, or as a fan club who will help secure our reputation with the denomination. The more we focus on the external trappings of the pastoral office and neglect the issues of call and character, the more we can resemble a Father Fred - counterfeit clergy leaving a shattered and scattered flock. The truth is that fake clergy eventually get caught, and the higher our ambition takes us, the longer the fall can be.
Perhaps the best way to avoid faking it in ministry is to go back to basics and follow the example of the Good Shepherd. Let us celebrate in this counterfeit culture, and we serve a Shepherd that counters deception with love.
- Instead of destruction, the good shepherd offers construction;
- Instead of scattering the flock, the good shepherd is a "gatherer" and indeed will seek lambs that are lost;
- Instead of driving the sheep, the good shepherd will lead or stand in the midst of the flock;
- Instead of ignoring the flock, the good shepherd will make sure the sheep are well fed; and
- Instead of striking fear and terror into the sheep, the good shepherd will "gently lead them."
Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
I'll go with Him, with Him all the way.
Coffman Commentaries: Jeremiah