Sixteenth Sunday of Year (B)
(Jeremiah 23:1-6; Saint Paul to the Ephesians 2:13-18; St. Mark’s Gospel 6:30-34)
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the O.T. Scriptures, as we know them, were built up very gradually over more than a thousand years, with later ages adding new layers, strata, to traditions received from earlier times; and in some of the most ancient of these traditions thus Providentially preserved and developed is the theme of shepherd:
Then (the prophet Michaia) said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master. Let each return to his house in peace.’ ” (1 Kings 22:17)
The Israelites were originally nomads, people wandering with their flocks and herds from one grazing land to the next, always in search of pasture for their animals. This original, wandering existence -- bound by no ties other than the well-being of their flocks and herds and the constant search for the best available grazing -- this, in a word, nomadic life was very much admired in later ages by some of the great prophets of Israel who found themselves surrounded on every hand by decadence: by the luxury, violence, injustice, superstition and depravity of city life, and the abuse of settled agriculture for the pursuit of profit and the accumulation of money. They looked back with nostalgia for the old days because it seemed to them that as nomads they had lived with the dignity and simplicity of men who were free, being disciplined and protected by the peace and rigours of desert life. Yes, they regarded the original nomadic life as ideal for God’s Chosen People seeking, ultimately, only God’s will, while rejoicing in His great beauty and goodness in the world around, and above all in their own history and in their own lives.
With such sentiments those prophets regarded the Exodus as the high peak of Israel’s spiritual experience, when – with God as her shield and guide – she came out of Egypt’s slavery and wandered over desert wastes learning to know her God on the way to the land He had promised them. Moses appeared to them as the true shepherd and David -- the great king -- as his heir. After David, however, his successors failed to respond satisfactorily to their calling and so we heard Jeremiah declaring to them in today’s first reading:
Woe for the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of My pasture, says the Lord.
Looking to the more distant future the prophets foretold two things: God Himself would be the Shepherd of His People; as would also a future king, the Messiah of God. These two traditions were fulfilled in the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ … and the great work of Christ our Shepherd was to bring peace to His flock: peace with God and with men of good will, as Saint Paul told us in our second reading:
He came and preached peace to you (Gentiles) who were far off and peace to those (Jews) who were near, for through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
Peace for progress; peace through (faith in) Jesus and, in the power of His most Holy Spirit, access to the Father.
And so, when we heard in the Gospel reading that:
When He disembarked and saw the vast crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
we can guess that He pitied them above all for their lack of peace and ultimate purpose.
His Apostles had just returned from the missionary work on which He had sent them and they were so very excited about the results of their work: the conversions brought by their preaching, the cures they had wrought and the demons they had cast out. Oh, how excited they were; and how glad, how anxious to tell Jesus all about it!
Jesus’ first care was to restore peace to their over-excited minds and jubilant hearts:
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.
Notice Jesus’ method: Leave the crowd and rest in the presence of Jesus.
I am somewhat puzzled by Jesus’ words since I would have expected Him to say, ‘Come away with Me to a deserted place (away from the crowd) by yourselves’, but He does not explicitly say ‘Come away with Me’, but ‘Come away by yourselves from the crowd’. Can it be that Jesus there -- for our future instruction -- does not want to promise explicitly to be physically there with, or waiting for, His disciples; but rather -- by use of the word ‘Come’ -- implying His presence, and yet also encouraging us to seek Him there in that lonely place. He wants to be found indeed, but nevertheless, He does not want to be thought of as being ‘automatically’ available?
Then He saw the crowds who followed after Him, and how He pitied them! How deep was their unrest!
We notice a similar thing so very frequently these days. In a crowd how easy it is to forget yourself; how easy to be swept along from one absorbing interest to another; a kaleidoscope of ever-changing events and excitement! But what about when these people separate, as they must, to go their own ways, and each is then left alone with his or her own thoughts. How few can bear that silence: for some, a threatening loneliness, for others, oppressive boredom! And what does that show? Simply that, of themselves, they have little that is positively theirs: that life for them is a wearisome business without the constant novelties of crowd-life, crowd-noise, crowd-reaction. How often young people are to be seen with ear-phones pumping into their heads rock and pop music or whatever is the latest hit-style. There is, of course, nothing directly wrong about that, but I’m sure Our Lord pities many such young people too, who cannot bear to be alone with themselves, to be aware of nothing but their own thoughts and fears, longings and regrets. Why? Because they don’t know where their life is going, they don’t have any guiding purpose. Out of touch, out of tune, with themselves, surrounding silence only seems to provoke deep and largely inarticulate longings, vague and unrecognizable aspirations, which seem to well up within themselves when noise from outside and distractions round about cease.
Jesus came to bring peace to our souls by offering us life; true life such as the world cannot give, life with a calling and a purpose that endures throughout the varieties of natural life and goes beyond the grave; life centred on a rock which no storms can unsettle let alone overthrow, life with a joy which cannot be taken away from us by worldly chance, because it wells up from within our own hearts and minds; life, drawing us with our neighbour as companion and friend to God as Father and fulfilment. That is the treasure offered us by faith in Jesus and the Gift of His Spirit in the Church.
People of God, don’t let yourselves get too wrapped up in the things of this world. Take serious measures to be alone in the vicinity of Jesus at times; open yourself up to be with Him in faith that He may deepen His Peace, His Life within you. Those words are emphasized because Christian prayer, and above all Christian contemplation are not to be entered upon in accordance with popular Yoga practices. We do not use any technique on, we do not have any power (even persuasive) over, Him. We turn to Him in our neediness, and in His Power is our peace; we hope in His great Goodness, and in His merciful Wisdom and Providence we confidently rest.
Thus we may learn to say with all our heart the words of today’s Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.