When we hear in the readings today about sheep and about shepherds, we probably think of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Or maybe we think of the bishop, whose very work is to be shepherd of the people of his diocese. Those are good images for us.
Our Catholic Church has a long tradition of describing its leaders as shepherds. The bishop’s staff, despite any decoration that it might have, really represents the simple shepherd’s crook. These descriptions can also be found in many prayers that we hear throughout the year during Mass.
It’s interesting to know, however, that the comparison of leaders to shepherds originally referred to political leaders, specifically the kings in ancient times. Over the years, as people have done work to uncover the sites of ancient cities have discovered very old illustrations of kings in shepherd clothing. This signified the ruler’s responsibility to guide and to protect the people of the kingdom.
So, getting back to the shepherd’s staff, the hook could gently catch the stray sheep and nudge it back into the flock, while the staff itself, if turned around, could serve as a weapon against threatening animals or poachers. This understanding of the shepherd is behind today’s first reading from the Bible – from the prophet Jeremiah.
The reading opens with a curse charging the entire monarchy, which consists of the king and all those who make up the ruling court. These leaders have not simply neglected the people of God, they have actually misled them and caused them to be scattered – probably a reference to the exile.
The shepherds have been occupied with their own gain rather than with the well-being of the people. And because the people were burdened with false shepherds, God promises to gather them together again as a watchful shepherd might gather lost sheep and then appoint other shepherds to care for them.
This whole idea of a shepherd keeps going in the responsorial psalm, which is probably one of the best-known passages of the Bible. It depicts the gentle and caring qualities of the shepherd and applies them to God: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Though the shepherd is responsible for the entire flock, this psalm reminds us that God is attentive to the needs of each individual person, not just to some impersonal group. The extravagance that characterizes God’s kindness and concern is absolutely remarkable. The person is shielded from harm and blameless in the sight of their enemies. The Lord prepares a lavish meal for him or her. Whether the phrase “house of the Lord” is a reference to the temple or merely to a place where God dwells, the basic meaning is clear. The person has been under the loving guidance of God and will remain there forever. A beautiful image I think, don’t you?
But as with all things in this world it seems, not all is well. The gospel we hear today recounts an episode in which Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity” for the crowds. This is one of the few occasions where St. Mark gives us a glimpse into the emotions of Jesus, here using a word that means a deeply felt, gut reaction (see 1:41; 8:2). And we should remember that compassion is one of the most distinctive attributes of God. He loves us so much. The reason given for this was that “they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
As with the reading from Jeremiah, the reference here is probably in reference to religious leaders, because at the time of Jesus, the Jews were an occupied people and the real political power was in the hands of the Romans. Still, just as the earlier Israelite kings, even though they were mainly political leaders, they also exercised religious power. What that meant was that religious leaders at the time of Jesus also enjoyed significant political influence over others. The fact that many of them had been appointed by the Romans was a serious concern for countless religious Jews. St. Mark does not explicitly identify Jesus as a shepherd, but you get this image because Jesus leads his disciples into a deserted place to provide them with necessary rest and relaxation.
At the times of both Jeremiah and Jesus, the people did not strictly separate political and religious leadership, as we do today. Even so, despite the different systems running as we have today, both political and religious leaders still have the responsibility of guiding and protecting the people for whom they are responsible. Ultimately, they exercise their authority as representatives of God who declared as in the Prophet Ezekiel: “I myself will pasture my sheep” (34:15); or of Jesus who proclaimed in the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd”.
This life of discord and disconnect that was present when Jesus was traveling around was still there when St. Paul was writing to the people in Ephesus, the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire and capital of Asia Minor. It seemed not much had changed since Jesus and I would say that unfortunately we are in a similar place ourselves today. Discord and disconnect at times.
St. Paul, in his efforts to shepherd the church there, and also here and now, reminds us that Jesus is not only the one who leads us to a peaceful place, but he is the peace that reconciles us with each other and with God. The hostility mentioned in the psalm and hinted at in the other readings has been broken down, and the verdant pasture described there is now available to all. But where do we find it? How do we avail ourselves of it?
There are so many people searching today, people hungering for instruction, good people who are looking for direction. They are not unthinking sheep who follow blindly.
Instead, they may be parents who are worried about the future of a troubled child; a man stripped of his dignity due to unemployment; a woman facing a pregnancy alone; the elderly who may feel that their life is gradually diminishing; people who are angry and confused because they have lost confidence in leaders, whether political or religious. They are people who are looking for answers and for meaning. At one time or another in life, it is us.
To whom should we turn? God for sure is our shepherd, but God also shepherds us through the intervention and help of other people, not just the designated leaders, but all of us. Together we have been reconciled with God; together we now make up one body. In some way, we all have the responsibility for each other.
Let us remember as we continue our celebration of the Eucharist that Jesus gives of himself for all of us and also for each one of us.