Father Donald Senior, CP

July 22: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Shepherd

Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34

I have the privilege of regularly leading groups to the Holy Land. Inevitably, the first time we encounter a shepherd leading a flock of sheep there is a flutter of photos taken through the windows of the bus. 

For most of us city and suburban dwellers, encountering sheep is rare. The closest we might come is a plate of lamb chops. But in many parts of the world, shepherds and sheep are part of everyday life. That is certainly true of the Middle East, which remains a mainly agrarian landscape.

The shepherd is one of the most enduring biblical images for both God’s care for his people and for the responsibility of the religious and civil leaders of Israel. The qualities exemplified by this image are clearly stated in our first reading for this Sunday, taken from the prophet Jeremiah.  

The prophet begins with a searing indictment of the leaders who have proven to be false shepherds. They mislead and scatter God’s flock. They do not care for their sheep. By contrast, “the Lord, the God of Israel” gathers the scattered sheep, brings them back to their meadow and insures that the frightened sheep will “no longer fear and tremble” and “none shall be missing.”

The image of God as shepherd is beautifully portrayed in Psalm 23, one of the most beloved passages in the Old Testament. Its major theme is picked up in today’s psalm response: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” 

Once again, the qualities of the shepherd’s care for the sheep are cited: God protects the sheep, leading them to “verdant pastures” and allowing them to lie “beside restful waters.” With the protection of the Good Shepherd there is no reason to fear even as one “walks in the dark valley.”  

The Shepherd feeds his sheep and brings them home where “only goodness and kindness follow me” and “where I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” No wonder this psalm is often read at funerals, bringing a sense of comfort to those anxious about the fate of their departed loved ones.

The Gospel passage from Mark also evokes the image of the shepherd and the sheep — this time as a metaphor for Jesus’ care for his disciples and the crowds who seek him out, a metaphor invoked several times in all four Gospels. 

Mark portrays Jesus caring for his disciples as they return from their first plunge into the mission of healing and preaching — a share in Jesus’ own mission that he had entrusted to them. He invites them to “come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” As the Gospel narrator explains, “People were coming and going in great numbers, and they (the disciples) had no opportunity even to eat.” Jesus invites his disciples to set out by boat for a deserted place to rest — a beautiful interlude for Jesus and his closest followers that we can only imagine.

As often happens in our own lives, plans for some peace and quiet are undone by unexpected visitors. When Jesus and his disciples come ashore they are met again by “vast” crowds hungry for Jesus, his words of truth, his healing touch. 

Seeing the crowds, Jesus the true shepherd is not impatient or exasperated. Rather his “heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” In fact, “moved with pity” does not capture the strength of the verb that Mark uses here to describe Jesus’ reaction. Literally, his very innards are deeply stirred. 

Semitic culture described deep feelings of compassion as we do in saying we have a “gut reaction.” Jesus’ love and care for his sheep is intense and deep. The scene concludes by noting that Jesus “began to teach them many things.”

The image of the good shepherd as a way of expressing the tender care and compassion of Jesus for his disciples and for the crowds is also the model for those entrusted with the pastoral care of God’s people.  




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