THE SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Ephesians 2:13-18

Mark 6:30-34

No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular with the establishment.  It is not hard to imagine how he fell into disfavor and was thrown into the cistern where he sank into the mud and cried out to God for vengeance.  If you were one of the religious leaders of his time and were being publicly excoriated for the miserable job you were doing with devastating results for the people, wouldn’t you be furious?  On the other hand, if you had an ounce of humility and could hear in Jeremiah’s prophecy the grace of God challenging you to recognize the errors of your ways, to repent and do a better job at putting the needs of the sheep ahead of the shepherd’s, you might have found yourself secretly thanking him for his courage to speak an unpopular truth.  The fact is that in every age, those who most need the message become most deaf to it because they are the ones in authority, divinely appointed to be so.  Or so it would seem.  Yet even as the prophets are vilified, there are those who listen and change.

We must hear Jeremiah and if we do the result will not be to point the accusatory finger at those presently on the various thrones of authority.  Although there can always be the prayer that they, too, will listen, recognize the errors of their ways, and put the lesson learned into practice.  There is a challenge in the prophecy for each and all of us, not just the present shepherds.

Inept shepherding can lead to disaster for the flock.  And God, speaking through Jeremiah, says that the time has come for God to take back the staff and do the shepherding because those called to the task have proven to be disasters.  The people have suffered.  There is only a remnant left.  And once God has rescued the survivors, God will appoint a new type of shepherd and a successor to David who will reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. Then Israel will be safe and secure.

That successor to David we believe to be Jesus.  What Jeremiah described as resulting from the reign of the successor we would call the Messianic Age.  That’s why Jesus is called the Christ.  Whether or not that age has been realized is beside the point.  It is God’s will that it will come about through Christ.  But it must be lived by the united body that now goes beyond the once and still chosen people of Israel.

In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us of God’s first covenant with the Jewish people sealed in Circumcision and evidenced through adherence to the Law.  The Gentiles were excluded.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the barriers have come down and the blood of Christ has made all people, Jews and the separated Gentiles alike, one people reconciled to each other and to God in Christ.  Isn’t that another way of describing the Messianic Age?  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace available to all are lived in Christ.  And it is Jesus who through his teaching, preaching, and acting exemplified how we are to work to realize the Age.

Take the lead from last week.  Remember that Jesus sent out the twelve to be extensions of him, acting with his authority, bringing about healing and forgiveness for those upon whom the disciples laid their hands.  Even the demons obeyed them.  Now they come back rejoicing in their success, rejoicing and exhausted.  And Jesus tells them to find quiet and take a rest.  Just where could that be?  How will they do that because of what has been unleashed?  The twelve were effective because they met the people where they were and responded to their needs.  That ministry has awakened a hunger for more.  Crowds come wherever the disciples are, yearning for deliverance and understanding.  There is no escaping the crowds even when Jesus suggests that the disciples get into the boat and set off for a deserted place.  The crowds know where Jesus and the disciples are going and beat them there so that crowds are waiting as the twelve disembark and step on shore.

First thing to note is that it is not unreasonable for the disciples to ask for rest and recuperation.  Exhaustion is a field hazard of ministry.  Even Jesus was known to go off by himself and spend nights in deserted places in prayer.  But invariably someone came to him there to remind him of the need should he have forgotten.  Everyone is looking for you. And Jesus would return to the ministry.  The crowds and their needs always come first.  Jesus always serves.

There is an amazing image at the close of this week’s gospel.  When Jesus steps out of the boat the frantic crowds, their number and their needs strike him.  His heart was moved with pity for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This is Jeremiah’s image in his prophecy.  No one is shepherding the people.  Jesus’ response is to shepherd them himself.  He begins to teach them many things.  This is not to chastise the legitimately exhausted disciples.  But it is to show them who must always come first.  If they are to share in Jesus ministry, if they are to be Jesus’ other selves, then they must do what Jesus does.

And this brings us back to what might well be the message for us to take to heart from this week’s readings.  There is nothing in the readings that promises the hearers position, power, or profit.  It is all a call to imitate the Good Shepherd.  This is not a ministry that results in being set apart.  It is a ministry of service among.  The Good Shepherd, the consolation in this week’s psalm response, we learn elsewhere is a Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. He calls them by name.  He lays down his life for his sheep. That ought to be the most to which his disciples aspire.  That is also why elsewhere Jesus challenges those who want to be his disciples to be sure they can take up the cross every day, to be sure that their only strength is Jesus.  This is why he will castigate Peter and demand that Peter learn from Jesus by walking in his footsteps and paying attention to what he does.  Get behind me you Satan! What had Peter done?  He simply had protested that suffering and dying did not fit Peter’s image of who Jesus was as the Messiah.  Peter thought with Messiahship would come position and power – not crucifixion and death.  Who know what Resurrection on the Third Day could possibly mean?

We live in a new age in the Church.  We call it the Church of Vatican Council II.  The Council proclaimed that the Church is the People of God called to live their Baptismal priesthood.  That means that every Baptized person is called to ministry, to shepherd.  Of course it means also that every Baptized person is also called to be ministered to and to be shepherded in the community we call Church.  The Church is a people constantly assembling to be formed in the Word and transformed by the Eucharist.  It is a people constantly growing in the understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ.  It is a people constantly learning the implications of the Bread broken and the Cup poured out, of the meal shared through the procession to Holy Communion.  Never is this action something in which to rest.  Rather it is always something from which the people are sent – themselves to be broken and poured out in imitation of the One who called them to the Table and was broken and poured out for them.

So, in the end we are left with a dichotomy.  There is such a thing as exhaustion and the danger of being burned out by ministering.  Jesus invites the disciples to rest.  But the demands of the poor ones wandering about like sheep without a shepherd must always come first for them, even before their legitimate need for rest.  And those who would be his disciples must always seek to do what Jesus does, to imitate him in everything.  Who can do that?

Only those whose strength is Jesus.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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