The beginning of this gospel passage seems to be a perfect text for a warm summer Sunday: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
The apostles did so...and we, too, who experience Mark’s people “coming and going in great numbers and…no opportunity even to eat” can respond eagerly to that welcome invitation to come away and rest!
When digging a little more deeply into this passage, however, one realizes that this passage is preceded by the terrible news that John the Baptist had been killed (in a kind of freakish turn of events, at a party) and it is followed by the daunting turn of events that challenged Jesus and his friends to feed crowds of thousands of people with very little clear resources (5 loaves and 2 fish). Jesus was in what must have been a moment of feeling deep sadness as he faced the sudden loss of his cousin through a horrible death. Mark does not dwell on that moment (nor do the other evangelists) but we can imagine it.
Instead, Mark pictures Jesus welcoming his apostles back, recognizing their weariness and, very likely, their discouragement. He reaches out and invites them to rest. Compassion and the recognition that human life requires some sense of balance seem evident here!
Jesus’ feelings for others are seen best in this passage in the strong imagery of the shepherd concerned about his flock who seemed to need a shepherd! Perhaps they feel as if they have lost John and need someone else to lead them on.
Most of us have very little experience with sheep or shepherds. Mine is twofold: first of all, my grandfather OJ Caron loved farm life but his beloved wife, Marietta was much more inclined to comfort. They (or he…) compromised. He built a beautiful home (in a cornfield) that overlooked a pond and a pasture where his sheep could be. I, and many of you, have happy memories of that scene. The gentleman farmer’s life with sheep, in that setting was mainly through a large dining room window looking out on an idyllic pastoral scene. Secondly, one of my favorite childhood books was Heidi.
I need say no more about my limitations in regard to shepherds.
Our western world, too, has limitations in this regard. Perhaps this can be glimpsed by the following description of a cartoon from the New Yorker: It depicts a rather thin man with glasses wearing a windbreaker, slacks, and street shoes, carrying a briefcase, and standing before a flock of sheep and saying, “Your shepherd, Louie, has retired. I am Mr. Smathins. I will be your grazing-resource, your coordinator, and your flock welfare and security manager from now on.”
Yes! We do have to stretch a bit to relate to the scriptural imagery of shepherd in Mark and in Jeremiah. On the other hand, because we are people of the book, this imagery is familiar and rich and powerful! Psalm 23, used as a response to the first reading, is one of the most familiar in Christendom.
This passage from Jeremiah recalls the true heritage of David, the young shepherd, dramatically called by God serve as king. Jeremiah issues a stern warning to those who now lead the people astray.
Mark, of course, sees Jesus as a good shepherd, truly concerned about his flock who seem somewhat “lost”. Perhaps they seem so because they had put a lot of stock in John and now, John was dead!
As I was reflecting on all of this, I recalled and I am sure you do, too, Father Mike Solazzo’s homily on our alumnae reunion Sunday this past April, wherein he spoke of the currently troubled relationship of some of our Church’s shepherds with the people of God today.
Then, I was reading an article by the theologian Gerald O’Collins in this week’s Tablet on Benedict’s choice of Bishop Gerhard Muller to head up the powerful Vatican dicastery called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) . O’Collins recalls Benedict XVI’s words to the Curia in 2005 in which he encourages a “hermeneutics of reform” described as “a method of interpretation that would continue to reform and renew the Church in different aspects of her life. “
We long for continued reform and renewal. We long for good shepherds in that spirit of renewal begun fifty years ago.
O’Collins also speaks of his recent review of the New Testament and some of its commentaries. He notes the many, many warnings about false teachers and the harm they can cause.
We know that well, too. Our news media is often filled with such things. False teachers can be smooth, eloquent, and convincing, even as they mislead their listeners.
Good shepherds are needed – those who act with courage and prayerfulness and vision and who always respond with compassion.
We are all called to be good shepherds and to recognize the good shepherds are present or who are emerging in our Church.
This past week I listened to Sister Pat Farrell’s interview on Fresh Air and was so moved by her peace-filled and knowledgeable approach to what could be a terribly polarized situation.
Good shepherds avoid polarization. Most situations, we know are neither all good nor all bad. Many situations require much reflection. The good shepherd recognizes this and leads his/her followers to learn more of the healthy diversity articulated for us as crucial to our Church in Lumen Gentium – that cornerstone document on the Church that came to us through the work of Vatican II.
So, today, as we celebrate the feast of Mary of Magdala, we celebrate the possibilities of a Church that may one day fully recognize women.
In the midst of this Ordinary Time on this 16th Sunday, we admit our human limitations. We attempt to listen to the call to live fully the message of the gospel - to be compassionate, loving shepherds to one another and to the people of God.
…and, we also hear that invitation to come away…to rest a bit.