Column: Prophecy applies both literally and figuratively

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Because of the fighting currently taking place in Syria and Iraq, many people have fled from their homes. Some have found refuge in neighboring Turkey or Jordan. It is a huge humanitarian crisis.

Warfare is the main reason why people end up as refugees. It is also a major cause of famine. People uprooted from their land cannot tend their crops or feed themselves.

This unfortunate fact has held true throughout all human history. When the Babylonian empire conquered the kingdom of Judah in the 6th century B.C., that country was thrown into turmoil. Many people went into exile. We sometimes call that the Babylonian Captivity.

The prophet Ezekiel probably has this in mind when he refers to the scattered sheep in that passage which we will hear as Sunday’s first reading, Ez 43:11-12, 15-17. Ezekiel himself was living in Babylonia at the time. As such, he had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties of those in exile.

In this prophecy, God is speaking about the people of Israel, who have been suffering much. As a good shepherd, God promises to come to their help:

“I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered… The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.” The exiles hearing this prophecy would have easily applied it to their own experiences. It would have offered them the hope of a new life, a better life.

In our own day and age, we sometimes tend to spiritualize this passage. We correlate it to our experience of sin. After all, sin causes a spiritual injury to the soul. Through sin, we stray from God, like a lost sheep.

There is nothing wrong about this amplified interpretation of Scripture. It reminds us of the richness of meaning that we can find there. We go beyond the meaning that Scripture held for the original listeners to apply it to our own situation, to discover the meaning that it has for us.

At the same time, it is important to uncover the original meaning. That can only increase our understanding, and broaden the scope of its application.

For example, we can apply the passage from Ezekiel’s prophecy, not only to our own experience of sin, but also to the experi- ence of war refugees in our world. For them, Ezekiel’s prophecy promises a new life — free from the sufferings of their present one — in a physical sense, not only spiritually.

In any case, both for war refugees and for us, Ezekiel’s prophecy offers us hope for healing. It assures us of God’s care for us, as a loving shepherd.

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