Sixteenth Sunday of the Year : July 19, 2009

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
When Jesus calls himself a Good Shepherd, we find difficult to grasp the full meaning of the role of a Shepherd. This is more so when we are not accustomed to rearing the sheep. A shepherd has an important task of caring for the sheep, protecting them, taking them to green pastures, and loving them with affection. It is a job that needs total commitment from his part, provide steady energy to care for them and the shepherd normally will have little rest. The sheep needs constant and steady watch over his sheep. When one sheep goes astray, others easily follow blindly and often the entire herd is placed in dangerous situation. Once gone astray, the sheep will have little sense to get out of it till the shepherd positively helps them. During the time of Jesus the Shepherd were considered as outcasts of society for their uncultured manners and often being away from the society and yet the society needed them to care their sheep and provide wool meat and milk for them. It was a lowly and humble job and at the same time they carried a responsibility of protecting the herd under their care. It is easy to see Jesus as a shepherd. He gathers the people around him. He protects them, takes care of them, prepares a meal for all and restores the soul to normalcy. By accepting the role of a Shepherd Jesus had to sacrifice a lot and accept the responsibility of caring for the many. We know him as our Shepherd and as the psalm says, with him around us nothing we shall want. One has to listen to his voice and follow him closely. As a shepherd he gave up his life for us and even now he gives us the Eucharist as our food. We all need to listen to his voice and follow him.
Prophet Jeremiah today in the First Reading has strong words for shepherds who are irresponsible and who let their flocks be scattered and destroyed. He was speaking to the religious leaders of his own time. It is a total contrast to the kind of shepherd that Jesus shows himself to be. We also heard the promise of God the Father to gather the remnant of His flock out of all the lands and to raise shepherds over them to protect them. In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, disappointed with the priestly branch of the Levites who were called to be the shepherds, God promised with the words: “I myself will 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.” As our living faith teaches us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, came into the world and laid down His life for the sheep. Through the ministry of the common priesthood, as we reflect during the current year dedicated to priests, we see the fulfilment of the role of a Shepherd in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, as a fulfilment of this Divine prophecy. Through the prophets God had also promised that he would raise a righteous Branch, He who would reign as King and deal wisely, and he would execute justice and righteousness in the land. Through Him who will be called our righteousness, the people from every nation would qualify to be saved.
The same theme continues in the second reading of being a good shepherd caring for the sheep. It is necessary that in the church there are Good shepherds, good pastors, all for the unity of the community. They are to remove all discord and division in communities. The Second Reading from Ephesians speaks of how Jesus brought Jews and Gentiles together in one family. He broke down the barrier that divided them, a barrier symbolised by a wall in the Temple. In fact, the Temple was a building of many walls, each one marking off limits beyond which certain people could not go. There was a wall for Gentiles, beyond that a wall for women, a wall for men, and a wall for priests. And even a barrier into the Holy of Holies into which only the High Priest could go once a year. By his dying on the cross, Jesus broke down hatred and divisiveness and created a New Person and a new family not based on blood, race, nationality, gender, or class. He demolished the barriers that divide one group of people from another. Jesus’ teaching was for all and he had no distinction of any sort. He invited them all to belong to one family, his family, with just one Father, where all are truly brothers and sisters. This is the demon which we, as active disciples, most need to liberate people from – the demon of division. This is the healing which we most need to bring – to break down the walls of prejudice and help all to become one family.
In today’s Gospel Mark tells us that the disciples had just returned from a missionary journey. They had been doing the same work as Jesus: they had gone to proclaim the kingdom; they were calling on people to change their lives and prepare to enter the Kingdom; they were liberating people from evil powers which control and enslave them; they were anointing people and healing all kinds of sicknesses. They did with authority of their master, what Jesus had been doing over the past two years. Now, obviously with some pride, they report back to Jesus all they had done. They would have told him all their activities, the miracles they worked, healing they did and the message they had taught. Here, we see their accountability, where the apostles render complete account to Jesus who had sent them with trust. They were happy and probably at the same time tired and Jesus recognises this easily. Jesus and the disciples were surrounded by crowds of people so that they did not even have time to eat. The Master then suggests that they all go off to a quiet place to be by themselves alone. Jesus would have done this withdrawal purposely, to give them some quiet time to reflect and pray on what they had experienced. It is something we all need from time to time. They had worked hard and they deserved total rest to re-energise them. Jesus certainly felt they needed to be separated for a while to reflect on what they were really doing and where their ‘power’ really came from. People however refused to leave them alone; they follow them. Maybe the disciples were highly disappointed as their day of rest had disappeared due to the crowds and Jesus now consoles them. Perhaps Jesus, too, was disappointed as it was he who brought the disciples out. After all, the idea of getting away was his. But, seeing the huge crowd, he was filled with compassion for them.
When in the Scriptures we see Jesus often surrounded by crowds, we are not fully surprised as he was always a crowd puller, a person so attractive. Yet we are surprised when he tells disciples come and rest. He is so protective of them and so caring for them. No one had more important and urgent mission than Jesus. Yet he knew that important things cannot be accomplished without peace of mind. He himself used to spend his time in quiet. The Gospels tell us that early mornings he went to pray and sometimes he spent the whole night in prayers. He wanted his friends also to have the same. Yet when Jesus saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, people without direction, without guidance, hungry for words of light and meaning in their lives. They had no one to take care of them or protect them. Even though he was tired, Jesus immediately sat down and began to teach them. He was not worried of his personal welfare but cared more for the people. People were eager to listen to him. He spoke to them with an intensity and power that they had never before experienced.
We need to pray that our Church has today truly effective, responsible and compassionate pastors. But we need also to pray for other kinds of leaders, including parents and teachers of all kinds – in a way all of us who are in any way responsible for influencing others. The Lord is out Good Shepherd who wishes to lead us in right paths. To follow the Lord we have to be able to listen to him. From time to time at least we have to deliberately, sift the noise and distractions from our life and listen to the voice of the shepherd. Then we have no fear in our life in the face of any danger. We ask the Good Shepherd to care for us and ask for the grace that we may be his shepherds to carry out his mission.
MY dentist’s office is full of very expensive and sophisticated equipment. The high-tech gadgetry helps him to monitor possible problems with my teeth and treat whatever problems may arise with greater precision and less pain for me. But there’s one dental-health issue that all the fancy equipment can’t address: the results of not flossing daily. Standing in the middle of all that equipment, my dentist told me, “There’s no substitute for running that piece of floss between your teeth.” It’s hard to believe that an action so simple can have such great effect. Sometimes in the pursuit of good spiritual health, we try to substitute complicated and advanced methods for the simple ones we have readily at hand. We may go to conferences or seminars to deepen our spirituality but neglect daily meditation and Bible study. There’s no substitute for flossing, and there’s no substitute for praying and reading scripture daily. Dear God, help us do the things that will bring us closer to you. Amen.

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