Sunday, July 18, 2021

Come Away

“The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want”. We have just sung this refrain many times over. But do we really believe it? Because, if we did, we’d be the most blessed and happy of people already at the center of our souls, regardless of what else might be happening in our life or in our world. Today’s readings reveal to us Jesus as a true and good shepherd, not in theory but in action. By extension, these passages the Church addresses to us today teach us what it means to exercise the ministry of a shepherd in the Church at any level. An irate Jeremiah denounces all evil shepherds—that is, kings, presidents and all political, military and especially ecclesiastical leaders of the people who have made their position of power an occasion not for service but for exploitation. In its positive aspect, this denunciation demands the necessary conversion of power into service on the part of all in authority. God himself will judge and vindicate the wrongs committed by unworthy shepherds, and he will raise up an authentic shepherd. In the gospel, Jesus appears as the shepherd who quenches the thirst for firm and trustworthy guides of a people that is now as lost as are “sheep without a shepherd”. And, by his reference to the blood and the cross of Jesus as instruments of reconciliation, St Paul reminds us that Jesus is a shepherd willing to “lay down his life for his sheep”.

The gospel portrays Jesus first of all the shepherd of his disciples, the small community gathered around him. Returning from the mission on which Jesus had sent them, the disciples surround him and tell him what they have accomplished. Jesus unites the community and gathers his disciples together, unlike the evil shepherds who “scattered [the Lord’s] sheep and drove them away”. He listens attentively to the stories the apostles tell him concerning all they have experienced in the concrete during the course of the mission. This exchange between Jesus and his disciples shows that authentic Christian mission cannot consist only in “doing and teaching”. The experience of the mission also needs to be communicated, narrated in detail and listened to. It is via this process of intimate dialogue (of prayer really) between Jesus and those he has called to himself, that the disciples’ pastoral and existential experiences find an opportunity for both consolation and correction, both confirmation and rectification by Jesus. Proclaiming the Gospel, bearing living witness to Jesus the Lord, is a laborious process that has to be learned, like everything else, by patient trial and embarrassing error.

And so we should delight in seeing how the disciples are welcomed and listened to by the very one who sent them forth. Jesus does not show himself interested simply in the fulfillment of the mission. Jesus is no pragmatist; first and foremost he cares about the persons of those he has commissioned. Jesus, the good shepherd who knows his sheep by name, shows himself to be in fact more attentive to the missionaries themselves than to the mission and its possible success. “Success” or “failure”, as the world defines them, are matters of indifference to Jesus. As he listens to the stories recounted by the apostles, Jesus is tenderly sensitive to their fatigue and their need for rest. So he invites them to go off with him to a place away from it all so he can tend to their weariness.

It’s evident that Jesus’ disciples already at this time are suffering from what we think of as a typically modern phenomenon: the tyranny of activism, of never having enough time. “There were many crowds coming and going, and they [the apostles and Jesus] no longer even had time to eat,” says the text. Jesus, the good shepherd, gives his disciples the right and the command to rest, and by so doing he gives them the responsibility to give themselves time, to stop, to inhabit and enjoy the silence and solitude in his company that he is giving them as gift. In other words, Jesus wants his collaborators to stop their frantic activism in order simply to “be” and not become alienated from their own true being by sheer force of “doing”, thus neglecting the more elementary needs of human and spiritual life.

Let us remember in this connection that earlier in Mark (3:14-15) Jesus had called the apostles to himself, for the purpose in the first place that they should wholly be with him, in the strong, ontological sense of this expression. Only secondarily does he also command them to preach and cast out demons. The categories of being and doing, the difference and the hierarchy between them, are hugely crucial to all healthy human life. Perhaps the most important thing the apostles need to learn in their eagerness to accomplish great feats and prove themselves, is that they can and must find their rest in their relationship with Jesus, who in Matthew exclaims: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will restore you” (Mt 11.28), as we heard Jesus tell us in last Thursday’s gospel.

When Jesus disembarked to go to a deserted place with the disciples, he saw the large crowd that had preceded them on foot and “he felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”. Compassion is clearly the foundation of Jesus’ pastoral action. Just as he had seen the need of his disciples for contemplative rest, now Jesus sees the need of the crowds to be shepherded, and he does not reject them, does not send them away as if they were an obstacle to what he himself had previously planned. No, it is precisely for this compassionate caring and shepherding that he had come from the Father! This is the substance of Jesus’ life as Incarnate Word: to give himself eucharistically as gift to a starving and wretched world, above all to the marginalized whom all the powerful seem to have abandoned.

Jesus sees the hunger the people have for God’s Word, and “he began to teach them many things”. Far from being a possible annoyance that keeps the group of apostles from enjoying the rest the Master had planned, the crowds become in a sense a teacher for Jesus, precisely by virtue of their manifest need and poverty. Jesus accepts changing his own previous project. Graciously, he allows himself to be disturbed and commits himself to the arduous task of preaching. Jesus here teaches his disciples that generous availability to the needy, without advance warning, is a primordial Christian virtue. In the face of a neighbor’s need even our fondest (and, indeed, our most pious!) plans and desires must give way: the true disciple must be wholly malleable and accommodating. “Eucharistic availability”, I would call it—becoming bread for others. Indeed, the basis of all evangelical preaching, teaching and service can only ever be compassion, according to the very rich and physiological biblical term esplanchnísthê used here by Mark. It denotes a compassion that moves with pity, not only a person’s mind and heart, but his very viscera at the sight of human misery and want. Without the primacy of this kind of compassion, even the supremely Christian and ecclesial activity of preaching and teaching will turn, at best, into an academic exercise and a haughty demonstration of power.

The gaze of Jesus the shepherd is indwelt by the light of the Word of God: in this light he sees in the crowd not a hindrance, but an opportunity to obey the word of Scripture which demands that God’s people not be a flock without a shepherd, but that it should have sure guides and tender caregivers. And it is this obedience that demonstrates an important aspect of the Word’s Incarnation: namely, that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, is himself in a real sense a sheep amidst the lost sheep. He is, in fact, the Lamb faithful to the God who is the “shepherd of Israel”.

Yes, the Lamb is also the Shepherd! And Jesus, the sacrificed Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, will shortly give himself to us, too, from this altar of sacrifice, as our nourishment, healing and illumination, for we are a hungering flock no less than the rest of fragile humanity. He wants to be our life if we will let him. As St Paul teaches us today, “he came and preached peace” and even “became our peace”, our rest, “for through him we all have access in one Spirit to the Father”.

 Photograph by Brother Brian. This morning's homily by Father Simeon.