The Lord is the shepherd who will not disappoint

  • July 10, 2012

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) July 22 (Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)

“The Lord is my shepherd” — how often we have heard the opening line of Psalm 23 but perhaps we are not aware of its full import. It is a declaration of independence from the disappointments and betrayals of human beings.

Jeremiah, like his fellow-prophet Ezekiel, did not have good words for the shepherds of Israel. They did not do their job. They were corrupt, greedy and self-serving. They were mostly to blame for the disaster that Jeremiah saw looming on the horizon — the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the early sixth century BC. Speaking in the first person on behalf of God, Jeremiah expressed God’s disgust and disappointment at the poor performance of Israel. God resolved to take personal control of the situation — to gather the scattered children of God together and provide them protection. New shepherds would be found who would fulfill their responsibilities. Looking to the distant future, a leader from David’s lineage would be selected, partly because of this lineage but mostly because of his God-centred righteousness.

Human beings in positions of authority are often the source of disappointment and pain. In our own time (and in practically every other time) we have experienced the failures of political and religious leaders to consistently place the well-being of those whom they guide as their absolute priority. The prerogatives and well-being of institutions are often their primary concern. Cynicism, disillusionment and communal fragmentation are the consequences. Returning to the psalm: “the Lord is my shepherd” is a declaration of faith in the one guide or shepherd who never disappointments or betrays. We always need to search out good and reliable leaders, but at the same time it would be far more helpful for us to learn to rely more on God and less on humans.

Bringing near those who were far off and reconciling enemies is an essential part of Christ’s ministry. Why does the peace of Christ seem so elusive, even (especially) among Christians? Some careful distinctions are in order for understanding the message of the author of Ephesians. First of all, it is Christ who is our peace — not Christianity. This removes it from human machinations. Secondly, the New Testament (especially Matthew) insists that Christ did not abolish the law and the commandments. Perhaps what has been abolished is their use as boundaries or barriers. Humanity continues to evolve, not just physically but spiritually as well. As we face many contentious issues and difficulties, the reconciling and unifying functions of Christ’s mission should be our interpretive lens.

The apostles were suffering from what we would call burnout. A lack of rest and even proper eating was taking its toll. Jesus recognized this and tried to take them away for a bit of “R and R,” but it was not to be. They were recognized and when they arrived at their destination there was already a huge crowd waiting for them. Many people would have bolted and run or made excuses but not Jesus — He had compassion for them. He realized that they were desperate, afraid and confused; there was no one to guide them properly.

We might expect Him at this point to ask them what they needed or perform some act of healing, but He “began to teach them many things.” This was not a lecture or a workshop and Jesus was not merely imparting information to them. The teaching that He gave them enabled them to make sense of their lives. It offered hope and encouragement and illuminated their path before them. It was practical stuff — how to live, love and grapple courageously and patiently with life’s challenges.

This is what people yearn for — hope, meaning and practical spiritual advice. The fact that the sources of practical wisdom for many in our culture are Dr. Phil, Oprah and self-help books should be a wake-up call for all religious traditions.

Being a true shepherd involves being a spiritual teacher, not a moralizer or authority figure.