“They were like sheep without a shepherd”
“The Lord works marvels for me”
by Sr Mary Bridget Dunlea FMA
In reflecting on the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday, I was drawn to the Psalm – Psalm 22, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”. I was drawn, particularly to the verbs in the Psalm – leads, guides, revive, gives, you are there, give me comfort, prepared.” These are all the things God has done, does and will do for me. My spontaneous response was, “My cup is overflowing.”
A deeper look and I realise that “the Lord works marvels for me,” – sometimes directly, but, most times through the goodness and kindness of others; through their graced presence to me.
Then, there are the many opportunities that come my way to do in like manner for others, to care for them. God in Jeremiah condemned those who “let my flock be scattered and did not take care of them.”
In the Gospel, we have the example of Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. Jesus realised that the apostles needed rest and He invited them to go apart “and rest awhile.” Jesus had a plan, but, so too, had the people who needed His ministry. “They hurried and reached the place before them.”
This place became a new challenge for Jesus and the apostles. Is this an opportunity to make of this situation a new revelation of God’s care for His people? .Or would He see it as a burden? A nuisance? Would His enthusiasm wane? Would He turn a blind eye and leave it to others?
Jesus never said that we do not need rest, but He is asking us to make a choice to imitate Him – perhaps to learn how to delay satisfying our felt needs in favour of the other
It is easier to “pass by on the other side,” and not pay heed to those whose needs are neglected or ignored. In his poem, “Lycidas”, published 380 years ago this year, John Milton wrote, “The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”
This line has inspired writers and homilists to lay the blame for the unmet needs of our brothers and sisters on Leaders in Church and State. True to a point, but, how about the responsibility you and I have to play our part?
In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks of divisions and separateness. He tells us that Jesus took “down the barrier that used to keep them apart.” Do these words say anything to me?
Permit me to quote Milton again, “Look heavenward, Angel, now.” Learn from the Divine Shepherd. Pope Francis puts it into words for us, “Unless you let Him warm you more and more with His love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. How will you be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and witness?” (Gaudete et Exultate)
Scripture readings: Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
Reflections and Prayers by Fr Jack Finnegan SDB
1st Reading – Jeremiah 23:1-6
‘Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered – it is the Lord who speaks! This, therefore, is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says about the shepherds in charge of my people: You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them.
Right, I will take care of you for your misdeeds – it is the Lord who speaks! But the remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their pastures: they shall be fruitful and increase in numbers. I will raise up shepherds to look after them and pasture them; no fear, no terror for them any more; not one shall be lost – it is the Lord who speaks!
‘See, the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks –
when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David,
who will reign as true king and be wise,
practising honesty and integrity in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel dwell in confidence.
And this is the name he will be called:
Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock! These are strong words from the prophet spoken to those in leadership in Judah. They were supposed to take care of the people, especially the poor and the weak but did not do so. They did not keep God’s covenant. They treated the people harshly and brutally. And so, the royal house will collapse. But there is also the promise of restoration by God’s own hand. New leaders will come to the fore and a safe dwelling place will emerge. They will practice genuine justice. We Christians see a promise of Christ here: This is the name they give him: “The LORD our justice.” In today’s text, as well as references to political leadership, we see references to leadership in the Church and to the lives of our bishops, priests and deacons. Are they scattering or nurturing the flock? What about ourselves? Are we scattering or nurturing the faith community? Are we ready to proclaim Jesus as our justice and walk in his ways? Are we concerned about exiles and migrants? Are we concerned about the homeless, the lost and the strays? Grounded in God’s grace, are we ready to live faithful to our baptismal promises and commitments? Or are we content to drift with the prevailing cultural and consumer winds, oblivious to the caring whispers of the Spirit?
LORD, Adonai, your prophets spoke against false shepherds who failed to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, or bind up the injured. You do not want your people to perish through the actions of selfish leaders. Shepherds after your own heart place the needs of your people first. They feed the flock. LORD, your awesome vision of care surpasses our every dream. Your awe-inspiring vision of service challenges us to recognise and go beyond the limits of self-interest and self-concern. Call all in leadership in Church or State to conversion today. Remind us all that there is balm in Gilead. Renew your Church. Heal her wounds. Raise up great shepherds in our days, people of true vision, people of genuine service and justice. Have mercy, LORD. Pour out the oil and wine of your compassion on all our selfish habits and instincts. Now and forever. Amen.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. Such is our responsory today, echoing the music of a passionate heart. These are very personal words. They demonstrate God’s tireless care for all his people. Have we met our glorious shepherd? Do we genuinely listen to and follow our God along all roads? Do we find rest and support in God’s loving presence? Do we spend time close to God’s heart? Do we trust our shepherd, especially in dark times and in dark places? Can we say with the poet, I fear no evil. For you are at my side, with your rod and your staff that give me courage. Have you experienced God’s anointing breath? Has God’s oil of gladness cooled your heated brow? Do you sense the action of God’s goodness and kindness in your daily life? Of course, we live in complex times, times of change, times of upheaval. But the shepherd has not changed. We are all invited to embrace God’s path of peace today and embrace again the wonders of God’s astounding love.
LORD, Adonai, you are our shepherd. You lead us to green pastures. You open for us springs of living water and bring us to restful places. How wonderful you are! How glorious! How beautiful your glory!
We acclaim you. We praise you! We lift our glad songs of thanks to you! You invite us to spend time close to your loving heart. With you at our side we fear no evil. Your bright wisdom and your healing power sustain us even in the darkest times and places. Breathe your Spirit on us afresh. Pour your spirit of gladness into our troubled hearts. LORD, we live in complex times, times of change, times of upheaval. But you have not changed. Guide us along your path of peace, today, and may we embrace the reality of your love. Now and forever. Amen.
2nd Reading – Ephesians 2:13-18
In Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in his own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the cross, to unite them both in a single Body and reconcile them with God: in his own person he killed the hostility. Later he came to bring the good news of peace, peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near at hand. Through him, both of us have in the one Spirit our way to come to the Father.
Our second reading invites us to reflect deeply on what God did for the Gentiles, especially when we pause a while with the phrase, but now. Can you hear it singing of God’s gracious intervention on behalf of the lost. Paul reminds us that a twofold enmity has been overcome: that between Jews and Gentiles rooted in the law, and that between sinners and God. All are reconciled in Christ who creates our peace. Paul invites us to see reconciliation in Christ, which means to bring together again, from a position of oneness; a relationship full of the brightness of divine unity. All the walls are gone! Those who were far away are now drawn near! Now there is only one reality in Christ. In Jesus, all are one in transforming love! Can we live with all as equals in the promise of God’s Spirit and grace?
Lord Jesus, thank you for Paul’s wonderful song of love and forgiveness, of what you have done on behalf of the poor and the lost. In your Cross and Resurrection, the ancient enmities have been truly overcome. We are all reconciled in you, the crucified and glorious one who creates our peace. Our divisions are conquered. The walls between us are cast down. You draw us into a glorious unity, into a oneness that overcomes all separation. Draw those who are far away into your healing love! Draw all of us into your overwhelming reality. May we all be one in transforming love! May we all live as equals in the promise of your Spirit and grace. Now and forever. Amen.
Gospel Reading – Mark 6:30-34
The apostles rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Then he said to them, ‘You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while’; for there were so many coming and going that the apostles had no time even to eat. So they went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
Mark’s gospel is full of paradox and full of many kinds of miracles. Our short reading today invites us to meditate on the introduction to one of them (the feeding of five thousand). Jesus had invited his disciples, whom he had sent out two by two, to come apart with him by boat to a remote place so that they could rest awhile. But it was not to be! The crowds heard what was happening and going to the place on foot got there first. Seeing them Jesus felt compassion for the crowd and began to share spiritually with them. Notice how Jesus puts other people’s needs first. Notice how the links he creates between prayerfulness and loving-kindness. Notice how he links compassion and deep spiritual sharing. Notice the link to the prophesied Good Shepherd who would ensure that the people would no longer be victims of famine… or bear the scorn of the nations (read Ezekiel 34). Are we open to learning these lessons? Are we ready to put other people first or are rooted in selfish ways?
Lord Jesus, you had sent out two by two and now you invited them to come apart with you to a remote place to rest awhile. But it was not to be! When you arrived the crowd was there, waiting for you. And so, your plans for rest, quiet and deep spiritual sharing fell by the wayside. The needs of the people came first because you are indeed the good shepherd. You cared for the flock on the mountain. As the prophet foretold, you pastured them on the hills of Israel. You made the hill a place of blessing. You broke the bars of their yoke and showed them the way to freedom. May we be your people in deed and in truth. May we never trample your pasture with our feet or muddy your bright clear water. May we climb your holy hill. May we meet you today. May you truly be our Saviour and our Leader. Now and forever. Amen.
On returning from their mission, the Twelve found Jesus concerned more about their taking a rest than about the results of their activity. However, for anyone following the Master, rest becomes impossible. The crowd that comes in search of him causes him to feel pity for them, and he begins to minster to those people who were without a shepherd. Resting with him may be the recompense of the missionary disciple, but the first lesson they have to learn is the compassion of Jesus when faced with the needs of his people. Jesus will not allow himself to be taken over completely by his own followers when there are people out there in need of a shepherd. This is a lesson often forgotten by Christ’s apostles – when there are people searching for Jesus, there is no time for even a well-deserved rest.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
This episode is in two parts: the return of the apostles (Mk 6, 30-32), and the teaching of Jesus (Mk 6, 33-44). No specific location is given for the first part. It serves as an introduction to Jesus’ meeting with the crowd, and also as a logical conclusion to the mission of the apostles (Mk 6, 6b-13).
The apostles, who had been sent out by Jesus, return. Nothing is said about the place where they had been sent, about the results of their mission, nor its duration. The fact is that Jesus gathers around him again (Mk 3, 14) the apostles until recently engaged in their mandate. They had acted and taught in his name and now they give an account of all they had done (Mk 6, 30), since they had received their mission and power from him. (Mk 3, 15; 6, 7).
Jesus reacts by suggesting to them that they withdraw, alone with him, to a place apart (Mk 6,31a). After the fatigue of the mission he invites them to rest. This was what Jesus himself did (cf. Mk 1, 35), and he wants his followers to do the same.
Jesus shields his apostles from the people they were sent to (cf. Mk 3, 20), by offering them a period of recollection and serenity. They have come back to give an account to the one who sent them, and they are looking forward to a time of intimacy with him. They worked hard in his name, bringing the Kingdom to all the people, and now they can join the circle of those close to him. Representing Jesus in preaching the Kingdom is the way to gain admittance to his exclusive company. At the end of his mission, the apostle knows that he can count on the Lord for a period of rest.
The arrival of a crowd of people, with all that that implies, prevents them from getting their rest (Mk 6,31b). This detail serves to emphasize the determination of the people to meet Jesus. His apostles were besieged by the people to whom they were ministering, as he himself had been earlier (Mk 3, 20; 1, 35). The people come looking for the apostles and they make it impossible for them to enjoy their hard-earned rest. Jesus insists, however, on bringing the disciples with him to a secluded place, far away from the crowd. He decides to go by boat (Mk 6, 32). The lake would make it difficult for the crowd to follow them.
Still, the crowd would not be deprived, and as proof of their determination, they went after them by land and got there before them. They were joined by people from all the towns around the lake which, naturally, the people going in search of Jesus had to pass through (Mk 6, 33). By now there was a large crowd looking for Jesus, even against his will. And this crowd would not allow him to rest, nor would they allow themselves to be ignored. On getting out of the boat, Jesus found himself with a large crowd waiting for him, with needs that could not wait (Mk 6, 34). The sight of the crowd caused Jesus to have compassion on them. The point here is to underline not so much the kind sentiments of Jesus, as his personal mission. The crowd’s needs move him to compassion – a compassion that reflects the loving care of God for his people.
The image of sheep without a shepherd explains Jesus’ unease. The people of God has come to the stage where they are a flock without shepherds (cf. Num 27, 17; 1 Kings 22,17; Ezechiel 34,5-6). And Jesus, with what he will do later, will become the guide of those who are in need of one. It is important to note that, before he gives them bread, he offers them his word. He becomes their shepherd, especially by being their teacher. The concern of Jesus the teacher for his flock is a messianic characteristic. It reveals the concern of God, the supreme Shepherd, for his people. It is a passion shared with God and for this reason, his compassion transforms Jesus into shepherd and messiah. The people of God receive a compassionate leader first, then teaching and then bread. And furthermore, what they receive from him – a lengthy instruction first and then a small amount of food – are the fruit of his mercy.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The first apostles must have felt flattered. Jesus welcomed them on their return from preaching the kingdom of God with an invitation to rest with him in some lonely place. They were happy with their first experience. They marvelled at the result of the mission they had carried out in Jesus’ name and with his authority. Certainly, they had many things to talk about among themselves and to report to their Master. Jesus, however, did not seem to have time for this. He was interested, instead, in finding a place for them to rest, a place where the people could not disturb them, a time to eat and to rest together, a few moments of intimacy. Have you ever noticed the number of times the Gospel speaks about Jesus wanting to be alone, to withdraw from the world and from the people, to have time for himself, and time with God his Father? What is special about today’s episode is that, for the first time, he decides to share his peace and solitude with the disciples as they return from their mission of preaching the kingdom of God.
This invitation of Jesus would be extended also to us today, if we were to gather around him, conscious that we have accomplished our mission as disciples of Jesus, to preach the kingdom wherever he sends us. What better reception could we hope for than to be invited by Jesus himself to rest with him, to witness his solitude, join him in prayer and share in his intimacy? All we have to do to merit such an invitation and such trust, is to preach in his name and with his authority. Normally we go to Jesus with all our worries, hoping to receive from him a solution to our problems or one more gift in answer to our needs. We feel disappointed if he does not meet our expectations. We forget that, since we have not been fully occupied in the task for which he sent us into the world, namely to preach the Gospel, then Jesus does not take into consideration our needs. If we are not committed to the Gospel, we do not deserve his attention.
The disciple who does not take care of the mission entrusted to him, cannot hope that the Master will take care of him. Jesus’ care and attention were given to the disciples as they returned from preaching the kingdom, having done what he asked of them. Many of our regrets about the way God treats us can lead us, at the end of the day, to discover God’s regrets about us. If we live for the proclamation of the kingdom, we will come to realize that Jesus does everything possible to help us find peace and tranquillity. The disciples who work for what interests Jesus most, namely God and his Kingdom, will soon feel the attention of Jesus and his concern to find food and rest for them together with him.
If we are concerned about making the kingdom of God known, and if we come back to him worn out from our missionary effort, we will receive his invitation. Together with him we will look for that lonely, peaceful place where we can be alone with him. Is it just a coincidence, in a society where people are always coming and going, as in the time of Jesus, where people seek constant noise just to escape from the loneliness of their lives, that we, the disciples of Jesus, cannot find our true selves and are unable to be sincere with God? Because we cannot accept silence and solitude, we are neither healthy people nor convinced believers. Silence and contemplation are the path we have to travel to find God, and to be alone with him. Without any doubt, as the saints knew well, anyone who cannot bear prolonged solitude, and the absence of voices and sounds, will not feel the nearness of God, and his soul will find no rest.
This is why many of the disciples of Jesus are still like sheep without a shepherd, arousing compassion, not only in Jesus, but in anyone who sees them. They are like that lost multitude without leaders that Jesus and his disciples saw, after they had rested together. We cannot complain that God does not find time for us, if we do not have time to be alone with him. God is not to blame for our feeling lost – he was not the one who abandoned us to our fate. If we do not give him the opportunity, and if we do not accept the invitation to be alone with him in silence, we cannot blame God. Our lives are filled with so many voices that are not of God, so much noise that is not his Word, and so many needs that have nothing to do with the preaching of the Gospel, that we find it impossible to hear God. If we want God to draw near to us, we will have to make space for him, do some spring-cleaning in our house, give up the things that distract us from God, make ourselves poorer and more open, less sure of ourselves and more in need of him. Silence, which is not just accepted but cultivated, will help us to hear, among the many voices, the one voice that is missing, the voice of God, and to feel his nearness to us in our poverty and his concern for our needs. We often hear people, even good people, who speak of their need for God, but seem to find very little time for him.
They do not realize that by not finding time for him, they are depriving themselves of God and depriving the people of the Kingdom. God has put in our hearts a thirst for affection, and a hunger for tenderness, that only his heart can satisfy. We lose the opportunity to satisfy this deep need, simply because we spend too much time every day trying to satisfy other lesser needs. We need to learn how to waste time with God to allow him to look at us, and see our needs, and be moved to compassion. Then, as he did with the multitude, he will find time to waste with us, teaching us in peace and calm. Anyone who is able to waste time with God, gains God and his compassion. Could we long for anything better? And it should not prove very difficult. We have to learn to spend time with him, time that we never seem to have, time that we waste on so many things other than God. However, we should resist the temptation to look for immediate gain from the time we spend with God. Time spent with God is not wasted, even if we are not aware of any gain or do not feel any better off as a result.
Let us listen today to the invitation Jesus addresses to his disciples: “Come away yourselves to a lonely place and rest for a while.” If we accept the invitation and follow him, and stay alone with him and for him alone, then we will feel pity and compassion for him, and we will experience his tenderness and his care. He will devote his time to us, he will turn to us and teach us patiently, if we give time to him and overcome our fears, just by the fact of being alone with him. If we really want him to invite us to rest with him, all we have to do is to come back to him, tired from our work of preaching his kingdom. Let us not forget that Jesus was concerned to find a resting place only for those who were worn out preaching the kingdom. Jesus will continue to take care of us, if we take care of God and his kingdom.