Jeremiah 23:1-6/ Psalm 23/Ephesians 2:13-18/ Mark 6:30-3
Theme: A Compassionate Shepherd
In the first reading, Jeremiah condemns the political leaders of his time who are leading to ruin the sheep that God has entrusted to their care. He then promises an upright, wise king from the house of David who will truly be a shepherd of his people. The gospel tells us that this shepherd is Jesus of Nazareth. The second reading shows us who the members of the flock are. They are not only Jews, but all people without distinction. Jesus has pulled down all the barriers that divide us.
The first reading is God’s message of assurance of restoration to his people who were exiled in Babylon. God warns the leaders of his people in the following words “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture…it is you who have scattered my flock and have driven them away… so I will attend to you for your evil deeds says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:1-2). The Lord was angry with the shepherds of Israel because it is because of their negligence that the sheep (God’s people) are suffering loneliness and deprivation. Human hands and hearts are small. But the Lord’s hands and heart are immeasurable.
When God gives, He gives abundantly- incalculable and overflowing. Having denounced the shepherds, God makes a promise to the house of Israel; a promise in which He himself will be their shepherd to “… gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them and I will bring them back to their fold and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (Jeremiah 23:3). In the remnant of Israel, God begins something new; He gives hope to seemingly insurmountable situations. Not only does God take up the shepherding role, he promises them shepherds who will “… shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer or be dismayed nor shall any be missing, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:4). This promise from the line of David will be a righteous shepherd who will execute righteousness and justice. He will be to them an example both in words and in deeds. His name will be “The Lord is our righteousness.”
The promise is fulfilled in Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The gospel reading today is first of all a fulfillment of the promise God made to Israel in the first and second readings. It presents to us a model of the good shepherd as opposed to shepherds in the time of Jeremiah. Very often Jesus and the disciples were so hard pressed by the crowds of people that came to them that they were exhausted and needed a rest. We are not any different and the gospel this Sunday shows us how important it is to get a balance between work and leisure. Psychologically and spiritually we all need occasional breaks and regular periods of quiet and rest. Today’s short gospel reading shows us how concerned Jesus was for the disciples who seem to be physically exhausted after being out on a mission trail. What is our own attitude towards those who work for us? Do we care or think about them only when we need something from them? Saint Mark says that there were so many people making demands on them that they did not even have time to eat, and so Jesus tells them to “come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while” (Mark 6:31).
Jesus is concerned that the disciples withdraw for a period so as to get some quiet and rest. We should take note of the fact that his first concern is not that they should be spending more time praying or meditating. Jesus promotes leisure and relaxation as desirable in its own right, without reference to any higher “spiritual” justification. But having said that, another reason why rest is necessary is that the more exhausted we are, the more difficult it is to pray or to keep up any kind of devotional practice or regular contact with God. It is a truism of spiritual direction that we need to acquire a certain level of stillness and calm in order to pray properly and nothing interferes with stillness as much as feeling harassed, rushed, and distracted. The temptation, when we are busy and agitated, is to put off praying or turning to God in a state of quiet and relaxation. Experience should tell us that we have to plan deliberately to set aside such moments. If we wait for them to happen spontaneously we are likely to end up losing the habit of prayer altogether. So there are all kinds of reasons why quiet, rest and leisure are important factors even from a spiritual point of view, and not just because people who work hard need a physical break from time to time. This is the sort of wisdom that Jesus does not take for granted in the case of the disciples, and it is surely a principle that we also can use to order the priorities in our own lives. And it is that peace that the Apostle Paul stresses in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul says: For Jesus is our peace. He has broken down the wall of hatred and malice, replaced the harsh Mosaic Law and created a new law of love and peace. His message, Paul says, was one of peace both in the world and in our lives, and through him we have access to the Father. He is the shepherd prophesied by Jeremiah. He is a true shepherd who gathers and does not scatter.
It is wiser to be more humble and to admit to ourselves that occasionally we suffer the same tiredness and lack of energy as everyone else. Jesus didn’t make the mistake of thinking he could carry on, indefinitely, without any kind of break, so neither should we. That’s the first thing we can say, perhaps, about how this advice of Jesus might apply to us in the circumstances of our own lives.
But the other way in which Jesus’ attitude is relevant to us today is that it challenges the hostility that exists in our culture to the idea that quiet and stillness and just doing nothing are valuable in themselves and sometimes even necessary. Over the last twenty years or so our society appears to have made a kind of fetish out of constant activity and restlessness. Even a lot of supposed leisure activities and forms of relaxation seem to be very busy and hectic, a matter of achieving “targets “to the extent that some people seem to feel guilty if they are not permanently exhausted. They do not think they have had a good holiday, for example, if they cannot come back and boast to everyone about how shattered they are on account of all the activities they have packed into a week or a fortnight.
The reality is that freedom from activity and stimulation gives us time to think things through and reflect about things in a way we cannot do if we are busy all the time. But rather than benefiting from a period of inactivity and stillness when they get it, many people now seem to have acquired intolerance to peace and quiet. If they have got nothing to do, they panic. Almost immediately they become bored and restless. It would be far healthier, physically, mentally and spiritually, if they realised that we all need some free time to recuperate our energies, not just so that we can carry on our work better when we go back to it, but so as to maintain a sense of balance and inner equilibrium. The feeling of being buried under a mountain of “things to do” gradually has a damaging effect on our personality: it causes depression and a gradual festering of anger and aggression. Whereas, if we remember to take a rest when we need it, we save other people from the bad temper and irritation that come to the surface more easily when we are feeling worn-out.
In sum, there are many lessons to learn from the readings of today which are applicable in our present lives: In our society today we tend to ignore quite often the need for prayer, rest, and calmness in the presence of God. Because of the hectic pace of all of our daily lives, we tend to look to our own agendas, and ignore the agenda that Jesus has for us. We can do nothing by ourselves, even though we often think we can. True Christian ministry and community is rooted in prayer and we need to take the time to listen without response, to open ourselves up to the spirit, so that as refreshed, peaceful people we can place our whole trust in the shepherd and do the work he has planned for us. And this is the Good News of our readings today. Many of us have failed in our shepherding roles because we have not learned to be with the Good Shepherd. It is only when we have become his companions that we can truly be shepherds. Jesus had the interest of his disciples at heart that is why he asked them to take a rest. We must learn to show concern for those who have been placed under our care. We must treat them with dignity and give them just wages so that we do not leave them at the mercy of predators.