Sixteenth Sunday of Year (B)
(Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)
Hopefully you will remember that last week in our readings, Jesus had sent out the Twelve on a mission, and told them that, if any town or village refused to hear them, they should shake the dust of that place from off their feet, in testimony against it. Well, this week-end we are told of the Apostles’ return:
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.
There we have a lovely example of the special care Jesus exercised with and for His Apostles: ‘Come, get away from this endless activity and constant distraction and let us go to some “deserted place” where we will be alone, and where you will be able to find refreshment for your souls, light and understanding for your minds, peace and joy for you hearts.’
The Apostles had put Jesus at the centre of their lives, and it was necessary for them to return to Him -- to Him alone -- at times, in order that they might be able to continue to proclaim Him, Him alone, in their preaching and teaching. Otherwise, they would inevitably descend to preaching either themselves or whatever people might want to hear: reacting to the wishes and serving and priorities of surrounding society before ultimately adopting the worldly attitudes and aspirations of those to whom they had originally been sent as guides in the ways of Jesus. Thereby they would merit a share the condemnation of the pastors mentioned in our first reading:
Thus says the LORD 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 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.
This, People of God, is of great importance for our modern society where Church attendance is falling markedly. The words “scattered My flock and driven them away” do not refer to the people falling off through indifference so much as to the pastors driving the flock away from Jesus, by offering them all sorts of substitute food rather than the true nourishment offered them by Jesus:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that one may eat of it and not die. (John 6:48-50)
Jesus alone is the bread of life and He comes to us in two ways. First of all, through His word:
He answered and said, "It is written, ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:4)
Secondly in the Eucharist:
I am the living bread which came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world
That composite bread, the Word of God and the Eucharist, is what we pray for to our heavenly Father every day:
Give us this day our daily bread.
What then if God’s People, coming to Church on a Sunday, are not given the bread God Himself is calling them into His presence to receive? That is the real meaning of those words:
Thus says the LORD 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.
This type of thing is done when, instead of the Gospel message and the Church’s teaching, political correctness is preached; when current fancies and prejudices are allowed to obscure Catholic teaching; or when the sins of the people are passed over in silence or even excused in order to avoid trouble or court popularity:
'This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men. All too well you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your tradition. (Mark 7:7-9)
In this regard we should remember that ‘holding on to the tradition of men’ can refer not only to old-fashioned traditions, which, in these days, many people love to decry, but also to modern, current customs or practices, which far too many people are afraid to withstand. It is relatively easy to spearhead the rejection of certain traditions in the Church -- venerable by reason of their antiquity, saintly observance and undisputed approval -- under the popular aegis of pseudo-inapropriateness for modern times, but few dare to resist the clamour and enthusiasm of the crowd which frequently praises and energetically seeks to promote trendy opinions and easy options devoid of religious significance and having little or no Christian spiritual content.
To continue with our Gospel passage, we are told that the people followed Jesus and His Apostles, with the result that:
When Jesus 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.
Do please, People of God, notice the form Jesus’ compassion took:
He began to teach them many things.
That is what must happen today in our society. Jesus alone can heal us:
Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28- 30)
Therefore Jesus has to be preached, His teaching has to be given, in season and out of season. This is, indeed, done at times, though only partially, when, for example, such words as those I have just quoted “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” are repeatedly acknowledged and commented on because they are beautiful words, easily recognized and admired by all. But Jesus continues, as you heard: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me”, and there, some so-called teachers and many of their hearers stop. The so-called teachers stop because they want to present religion and faith – not to speak of themselves -- in a popular light, while the hearers stop because they do not want to hear talk of a yoke, let alone feel themselves in any way obliged to assume one.
And so, all too often the teaching is omitted, whilst the seeds of consolation such as those words “Come to Me all you who labour” are carelessly thrown on the soil of souls already overgrown with worldly and even devilish weeds. The result is that the word of God is choked and a pseudo-religiosity takes hold : “God is good, He rejects none (there is good seed) --- there is no need to go to Church to find Him, to be accepted by Him (that is the rejection of any yoke) --- there is no need for sacraments, especially confession, just say an occasional prayer if you have time and God’s goodness will do the rest for you” (there you have the worldly, devilish weeds that choke spiritual life).
St. Paul told us in the second reading that Jesus:
Reconcile(d) (us) with God through the cross (that is the yoke) and He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near (that is the teaching), (and) through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
Through Jesus -- the Jesus who died on the Cross and whose yoke we must take upon ourselves -- through that Jesus we have access to the Father, in the Spirit Who brings to our mind all that Jesus taught and, at the same time, enables us to keep all of His commandments. Through that Jesus alone we have access to the Father. Today however, that Jesus is not infrequently sacrificed anew in favour of a figure with the same name but who is without a cross or any other sort of yoke, a Jesus whose teaching is manipulated so that it appears not to demand that we be reformed or renewed by His Spirit of Holiness. This pseudo-Jesus is prepared -- so modern people like to hear and want to believe – He is prepared to accept us just as we are: after all, are there not apparently serious and godly-minded people to tell us that we do not really intend the evil lurking in the harm we do, and therefore, though we may, indeed, have some faults and failings, nevertheless, these are not really sins, and, consequently, they can easily be overlooked. With some such self-justifying thoughts there are sinners who – over long years -- find themselves undisturbed by their now calcified conscience; and who further deceive themselves by imagining a comforting prospect of heaven being approached by a broad, well-lit, road that is not only smooth, but which also allows for many places of pleasant refreshment on either hand, to keep those travelling along it both happy and hopeful on their worldly pilgrimage.
People of God, be innocent not foolish; be wisely ignorant of the ways of the world and truly wise in the ways of God; try to do what Jesus wants:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. (Matthew 7:13)
We can only do that if we listen to the teaching of Mother Church, for she alone knows Jesus: and she knows Him because He is with her, as He promised to be, to the end of time; she knows Him because He Himself bequeathed His own Most Holy Spirit to her that He might guide her into all truth.
On their return from proclaiming the Good News Jesus called the apostles aside from the crowd to a desert place where they could be alone with Him. After a week of Christian witness in the world He still calls His disciples aside – apart from the world -- to be with Him, every Sunday at Holy Mass. In our troubled world some Catholics allow those troubles to influence and poison their time at Church. Like the apostles in our Gospel passage, we are meant to be one with Jesus in our Sunday gathering. ‘One with Him’ can then mean two things: all one in faith before Him as living members of His Mystical Body, and all – individually and personally -- alone with Him in the devout attention of our minds and the pious love in our hearts. All the difficulties, quarrels, with the Church proclaimed by not a few Catholics are due, in one way or another, to the failure of such Catholics to come to the Sunday gathering with minds and hearts fixed on their oneness in and with Jesus, exclusively.
That Church oneness of faith in Jesus realized at Sunday Mass is proclaimed by the beloved disciple John when he says:
Every child of God overcomes the world. Now, the victory by which the world is overcome is our faith, for who is victor over the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5)
And that personal oneness of loving commitment to Jesus, realized most sublimely at Holy Communion during our Sunday Mass, is urged upon us by Jesus Himself:
Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-26)
People of God, Sunday Mass is that unique occasion when our faith compels us to leave all behind and come together as one and be alone with Jesus; and surely, thinking on these things we cannot but be grateful to God for His goodness to us, and heartily agree that the Eucharist in which we are now participating is well named the Eucharist, our Thanksgiving.