“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,
either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B:
The Lord's My Shepherd!
Mark's Gospel this weekend (6:30-34) describes the return of the disciples from their first mission and inauguration into apostleship. They are exhilarated and exhausted, and have stories to tell Jesus of healings, exorcisms, and the effectiveness of their preaching the good news. Perhaps there were darker stories of their failure and rejection that they need to process privately with Jesus their master and teacher. Whatever the need, Jesus senses that his disciples need a break. They are tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in need of some prayerful healing solitude.
Jesus, himself, is not in top form. He has just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin and prophet, the one who had baptised him and had spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way. Worse, Jesus has lost him to murder by Herod, a terrifying reminder that God's beloved are not immune to senseless, violent deaths. Maybe for Jesus his own end, feels closer. It is possible, he is grieved and heartbroken. He says to his disciples as the crowds throng around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee "You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest a while." In the words "Come away" I hear both tenderness and longing. Yes, Jesus wants to provide a time of rest and recuperation for his friends. But he is weary, himself; the need that he articulates here is also his own.
In this event, I get a chance to glimpse the human life of Jesus, a life I can relate to easily. His need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide. These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus' divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious. They remind me that the doctrine of the Incarnation truly is Christianity's best gift to the world. The God 'through whom all things were made' as the creed professes: hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves. In all of these ordinary but necessary ways, our God is like us. He's also like us in that sometimes, his best-laid plans go astray. The needy crowd anticipate his plan, and follow on foot. By the time he and his disciples reach their longed-for destination, the crowds are waiting, and the quiet sanctuary Jesus seeks for himself and his disciples is nowhere to be found. Does Jesus run? Does he turn the boat around and sail away? No. As Mark puts it, "Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began to teach them many things."
The shepherd is a recurring image in both Testaments. In the Old Testament, the shepherd and the king are associated or joined together. Israel longed constantly for another shepherd king like David, but were often disappointed. Jeremiah (23:1-6) criticized King Zedekiah and others like him. “Doom (woe) to the shepherds….” They were supposed to gather and lead God’s people, instead their neglect scattered the flock. The consequences of such poor and corrupt leadership were dire: Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were taken into exile. Jeremiah makes a dark promise. God will take back the flock and shepherd them. God will rescue them by sending a righteous leader who has the heart and mind of God. God fulfills the promise made to the people. Jesus is the promised shepherd who will gather and feed God’s weary flock.
Jeremiah promised a shepherd king like David "who will reign and who will be wise” who will "who will practice honesty and integrity in the land.” By our baptism each of us is called to continue the mission of shepherding like Jesus and it can be very tiring! We do that in daily, unofficial ways by how we teach and set good example for others, especially the young. Did you notice what Jesus, the shepherd, did immediately when they disembarked and saw the needy crowd? He taught them. We don’t want our young to have a false notion of God, or a diminished notion of their worth before God. So we teach. But we also need some reflective time ourselves to dwell on God’s Word, lest our teaching be more about idols we fashion from our own thoughts, than about our shepherd Jesus.
Some of us are engaged in full or part-time ministry within our church community. What Jesus said to his disciples is true for us as well. We need to figure out how to “come away .. all by ourselves” for short and occasionally longer periods, to hear the Word of God for ourselves, and those we are called to shepherd through our teaching. The bottom line: all of us are sent to share our knowledge of Jesus, a knowledge that 's not primarily found in books or doctrine, but as a result of our personal encounter with Christ.
I write this reflection, as a comfortable middle-class Australian, and it is too easy a temptation for me to pass on compassion's responsibility to someone else. Whether I'm looking at the needs in my own circle of influence, my seemingly self-sufficient neighbours, or the wider community, it is tempting to tell myself that nothing urgent is at stake. Everything can wait, because I'm not the only person on the planet or in the church. Not much really depends on me. Or does it? However, this week's Gospel reading is about the ongoing and necessary tension between compassion and self-care. The gospel reveals to me that Jesus also lived with this tension. Still, the point is valid, we all need to figure out how to get to our own “deserted places.” That might be a few minutes in the car before we go to work; a pause in the yard after we put out the garbage at night; a walk in the park; turning off the television, the phone and just sitting; listening to any music that helps us go inward for a brief period. Not all attempts by Jesus to withdraw to a quiet place were frustrated.
On the one hand, Jesus was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to overwhelm his compassion. He realised in this situation, that he was the last stop for the aching, desperate crowd "who were like sheep without a shepherd." Unlike me, his personal boundaries were finally less important to him than his desire to love others. Is there a lesson here for us? Is it strive for balance? Recognise weariness when you feel it? Don't apologise for being human? Take breaks? Yes. All of these are essential things. But maybe also and most importantly this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep can die without their shepherds. There are high stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly. While balance remains the ideal, it will not always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will sometimes have to bend out of balance. If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week's Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. We need to decide for authentic compassion. Jesus did. The gospel is not encouraging us to be work-a-holics, but shepherds.
At our Eucharistic celebrations we are often like the scattered sheep. Jesus, our shepherd, gathers us from the many places where we live, work and spend our days. What we have in common and what draws us to this special pasture, is the faith that, with our shepherd we are well cared for, nourished by the Word of God and the living Body and Blood of Christ. The shepherd does again what he has done before: he sends us out well fed to return to the places where each of us is called from to be shepherds. We do not go out on our own, but are strengthened by the Holy Spirit, that was Christ's source of strength in his humanity as he set out to shepherd God’s needy people. So we pray; "Jesus you are my shepherd, I have everything I need."