Thursday, July 19, 2018

Good Shepherds and the Sheep: 16th Sunday in OT

At this time in the Church year, we are working our way through the Gospel of Mark, approaching the record of the Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6).  In the next five weeks, we are going to take a break from Mark in order to meditate on John’s account of the same event (John 6), which will provide a lengthy opportunity to reflect on the theology and biblical basis for the Eucharist.  This Sunday, however, we will only read the introduction of the account of the 5,000, and focus on the issue of leadership for God’s people rather than the Eucharist itself.

1.  Our first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah:
 Jer 23:1-6:

Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
as king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
"The LORD our justice."

The “shepherds” of Israel are their leaders, primarily the king and his servants, but also the priests and prophets.  King, priest, and prophet were the basic leadership roles in ancient Israelite society, and each role was bestowed on an individual through the ritual of anointing with oil.

In the days of Israel, the king, priests, and prophets of Judah were leading the people for their own gain, taking advantage of them in order to enrich themselves (see e.g. Jer 34:8-22).  Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, promises the coming of a “righteous shoot” from the line of David, a just king who will lead God’s people according to God’s law and not simply by the principles of Realpolitik (political expediency).  The word for “shoot” or “branch” here is tzemach; its synonym netzer is used in a similar context in Isaiah 11:1, another prophecy of this righteous son from the line of David. 

Obviously, the authors of the New Testament recognized Jesus as the promised righteous “branch.”  Matthew in particular sees it as striking that the promised netzer came from the town of netzereth (i.e. Nazareth, “Branchtown” or “Branchton”) and draws attention to this providential “coincidence” in Matt 2:23.

Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s restoration of good shepherds is very similar to Ezekiel’s famous oracle about the Good Shepherd in Ezekiel 34.  We quote from the heart of the passage:

Ezek. 34:20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.  23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.  24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied during the same time period (early 6th century BC), and shared many things in common, not the least of which was the conviction that the current leadership of Israel were “bad shepherds,” but a good shepherd would come one day from the line of David. 

Ezekiel’s prophecy has notable connections to the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the 5,000.  This is how Ezekiel described the work of the future good shepherd:

Ezek 34:13 And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country.  14 I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.  15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.

Note that the people of Israel will be (1) fed on the mountains, (2) with good pasture, and (3) they shall lie down on good grazing land, because (4) God makes them lie down.  All these themes reappear in Mark 6 and John 6, when Jesus makes the Israelites lie down on the “much green grass” that covers the mountains where he is teaching them. 

2.  The Responsorial is Psalm 23:

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
with your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

Along with John 3:16 and the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved passages in all of Scripture, and one of the most frequently memorized.  Interestingly, it was one of two sections of the Old Testament (the other being the Song of Songs!) most popular among the Church Fathers to use for sacramental catechesis.  The whole psalm may be read as a description of the Christian sacramental life.  The “restful waters” are Baptism; the “table before me” is the Eucharistic table; the “overflowing cup” contains the Precious Blood; the anointing of “my head with oil” is Confirmation;  the “walk through the dark valley” is death, from which we are resurrected to “dwell in the house of the LORD” eternally.  There is scarcely a better psalm to be read on this Sunday, when we reflect on Jesus our Good Shepherd, who in this very Mass will set the table before us and feed us with his very body.  The Eucharistic table is set “in the sight of my foes,” which points out the mystery of persecution in the Christian life.  Persecution is never wholly absent, and often powerfully present, for the follower of Christ.  As we in America watch as various forms of indirect persecution of Christians increase due to those who control the media and the educational system, let’s pray for deliverance and freedom, not only for ourselves but more especially for those under Muslim, communist, and other regimes around the world who face much more visible and violent abuse for their faith.

3.  The Second Reading is from Eph 2:13-18:

Brothers and sisters:
In Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have become near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, he who made both one
and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh,
abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims,
that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two,
thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God,
in one body, through the cross,
putting that enmity to death by it.
He came and preached peace to you who were far off
and peace to those who were near,
for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

The Second Reading is “marching to the beat of its own drummer” during Ordinary Time, in this case moving through Ephesians regardless of the theme of the Gospel.  Nonetheless, there are always providential connections.

In this reading, Paul is encouraging Gentile Christians to be grateful for what God did for them in Jesus Christ.  These Gentiles were once “far off” but now they are “near” by the blood of Christ.  Jesus “made both one”—that is, Jews and Gentiles into one people, the Church.  The “dividing wall of enmity” St. Paul speaks of is a complex image taken from the actual architecture of the Jerusalem Temple, which had a physical wall separating the outer court accessible to Gentiles from the inner precincts only permissible for Jews.  St. Paul uses this image of the dividing wall as a metaphor for the Mosaic covenant (the “Old Covenant”) and its laws, which due to its ceremonial and ritual requirements prevented Jews from living, eating, or worshiping with Gentiles—it forced cultural and religious separation of Jews and non-Jews.  However, Christ is the “one new person”—literally, “the one new Man,” an allusion to Adam.  Jesus is the New Adam, a spiritual father of all people, just as Adam is physical father of both Jew and Gentile.  So he brings us “peace,” a concept associated with Eden.  The New Adam leads all his children back to the peaceful garden of Eden, where we eat from the Tree of Life (the cross) which bears the fruit of his own body and blood.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for this sheep. 

Combined with the other readings, this passage of Ephesians reminds us that Jesus came to create of mankind one united flock.  In St. Paul’s day the greatest source of division was the cultural rift of Jew and Gentile, but in our own day his words urge us to think beyond the divisions in our hearts and in our culture: East vs. West; First World vs. Third World; Democrat vs. Republican; rich vs. poor, black vs. white, urban vs. “redneck”, or whatever other category we use to divide “us” from “them.”  Jesus came to remove “us” and “them” thinking and replace it with “we” thinking.  St. Josemaria used to say “Out of a hundred persons, we are interested in a hundred.”  By that he meant: Christ died for all and wants every individual regardless of their demographic characteristics to be part of his one flock.  We can’t exclude anyone from our love and our prayer.

The Church is the original organization to work for world unity.  Other movements or organizations that work for world peace or unity—like the United Nations, the Bahai faith, and many others—are trying to replicate or reduplicate the mission of Jesus Christ through the Church.  The Church is God’s plan for human unity.  In the Church, through Jesus Christ, all human beings are called to be reunited in the family of God. 

4.  The Gospel is Mark 6:30-34:

The apostles gathered together with Jesus
and reported all they had done and taught.
He said to them,
"Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while."
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
People saw them leaving and many came to know about it.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns
and arrived at the place before them.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.

In the first part of this passage, we see that Jesus is a Good Shepherd to his under-shepherds, the apostles, and makes the effort to allow them time for prayer, rest, and refreshment.  This is an important reminder for those that work in some form of pastoral or religious ministry, because there can be a tendency toward burn-out.  We need to be reminded that Jesus loves also us, and doesn’t will our self-destruction.  We, too, need time for rest, prayer, and renewal.  We, too, need to experience Jesus as our Good Shepherd before we can be good shepherds for others.

In the second part of this gospel, we see Jesus disembarking and feeling pity for the people who were “like sheep without a shepherd.”  These were descendants of Israel, who were without a shepherd in many senses.  For example, there was no Son of David, no legitimate king, reigning over them.  A Roman governor and an half-Jew named Herod were their leaders.  Even the religious leaders were corrupt: the high priesthood was from an illegitimate line of descent, and was more interested in maintaining its own wealth and privilege by collaborating with the Romans than it was in leading the people to God through the liturgy.  The Pharisees tried to fill the gap by providing religious instruction for the people, but their interpretations of the law were so demanding that common people could never live up to their standards of “cleanliness” and “holiness.”

So Jesus begins to teach them “many things,” which reminds us that his role as Good Shepherd encompasses the role of Teacher.  He teaches them “many things,” not just a simple Gospel message (“accept me as your Lord and personal savior!”)—as important as that may be.  The Christian life is an entire lifestyle, an entire way of living and being.  It includes “many things,” because following Jesus has implications for how we shop, for what we do in the bedroom, how we act on the job, the way we raise our kids, etc.  For this reason Jesus did not commission the Apostles simple to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them all a few simple principles,” but “Go, therefore, and make disciples, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  So this Sunday’s Gospel reminds us of the teaching ministry of the Church, and gives encouragement to everyone involved in Catholic education.  In a time when so many Church institutions of learning have abandoned their mission to communicate the teachings of Christ, let’s pray fervently at this Mass for those that remain faithful, that our efforts will be effective in communicating the Good Shepherd’s teaching to the next generation. The Catechism is a priceless resource in communicating Christ’s teaching, since it synthesizes and explains the content of Divine Revelation for the modern day.  If we help in spreading knowledge of the Catechism—including and especially those parts that are “unpopular”—we will be faithful under-shepherds, transmitting the care of the Good Shepherd to all his flock.

Want to go to Israel and see where Jesus multiplied the loves?  Come on the May 2019 Pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Dr. John Bergsma!  More info is here.

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