Readings:Jeremiah 23:1-16Psalms 23:1-6Ephesians 2:13-18Mark 6:30-34
Jeremiah says something in the First Reading that is all too familiar for those who have been playing close attention over the last nearly five years. Indeed, the story is as old as humankind, and since sin entered the world, and since all people share in that first sin of Adam and Eve, all people, even those ecclesiastically appointed, can be poor human beings, can be poor shepherds.
Jeremiah states “that Israel’s leaders, through godlessness and fanciful teachings, had misled and scattered God’s people.” Jeremiah promises that “ God will send a shepherd, a king and son of David, to gather the lost sheep and appoint for them new shepherds.” Those new shepherds will be the men Jesus privileged to be with Him most of the time. This close band of followers (not “perfect in every way” like Mary Poppins – Judas, Peter, etc.) were present to hear Jesus teach, and heal, and touch the lives of countless numbers of people, and then they were sent out to do likewise. They are the predecessors of those who shepherd in Jesus’ name, and who are meant to be examples for and lead those gathered together within a Diocese. In our privileged time, it is not hard to see the truth of what Jeremiah says, for the examples of cardinals and bishops, and those considered ‘shepherds’ on the more localized level, those we call pastors, have provided plentiful examples of individuals unworthy of the title “Shepherd.”
That Jeremiah was preaching to people in 600 BC can fill us with faint delight that ‘nothing changes,’ or it can depress us that our world is not very adept at rooting out the false prophets that continue to lead people astray. Obviously, there is no century, before or after Jesus, that is not in dire need of good shepherds. We live in days where the need for healing the divisions that mark our church and our world seem greater now than ever.
Perhaps it was a similar frustration that caused Jesus to invite the disciples alone “to a deserted place and rest while.” Having sent the disciples out “two by two” Jesus knew how much “they had done and taught.” They needed a prayerful retreat to recharge their batteries, but alas, that was not meant to be, for “the people were coming in great numbers,” and while Jesus whisked the disciples off in a boat to another “deserted place,” it wasn’t that deserted when they landed. The “vast crowd” was waiting for them when they arrived, and Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
People need Good Shepherds, individuals who can be trusted to possess the truth, who want what is best for their sheep; individuals in whom there is no guile, and who possess no desire to lead the sheep astray. The reality of our world makes leading people astray quite easy. The printing press made it substantially easier for people with nefarious purposes to lead people astray (e.g., Mein Kampf), but today with the radio, television, and the internet, those with a nefarious intention are multiplied in the most unscrupulous of ways.
The popular and familiar 23rd Psalm, which is our responsorial psalm for this Sunday, gives us some hints at identifying Good Shepherds. The model for all Good Shepherds is the Lord, who fulfills all our [real] needs. Good Shepherds lead us to “verdant pastures,” “restful waters,” and they “refresh” our souls. The Good Shepherd brings us to a place of peace, contentment, and comfort. Regardless of the type of Shepherd (ecclesiastical or political), if we are not led in a direction that brings us peace and refreshes our soul, then there is a high likelihood the shepherd is not good. This Shepherd of Peace is described beautifully in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Even though the Good Shepherd “guides me in right paths” it does not mean that there are not going to be “dark valleys,” hard times. Those difficulties can be endured because the Good Shepherd stays at our side, and His direction gives us “courage.”
The Good Shepherd is also unafraid of taking on the role of servant, the one who waits on us, “spreading the table” before us, “anointing our heads with oil,” and keeping our cups filled to overflowing. With Good Shepherds there is always “goodness and kindness,” never upset and conflict.
The gospel from Mark is barely a snippet, but it illustrates Jesus’ shepherding of His people. In spite of wanting the solitude He finds elsewhere in the gospels, His “heart is moved with pity,” and the next scene with be Jesus feeding the multitudes, an act which prefigures His sharing with us His Body and His Blood in the Eucharist. Jesus is the antidote for what afflicts the world – a shepherd, a leader, who is willing to become servant, and feed us His very self. It is Jesus who can heal a troubled world of all that divides it. Pope Francis said it best when he said in his Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “unless we recover the shared passion to create a community… our energy and our resources… will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness” (#36). May we be passionate about becoming Good Shepherds, modeling our lives after our Savior, lives that are filled with truth, justice, peace, and the intention to never lead anyone astray.