Just a thought
Following on from last week when our focus was mission and the sending out of the ‘Twelve’; the image that dominates the readings today is focused on the sender [Jesus] as Shepherd.
In the first reading: “Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered.” (Jer 23:1). The Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Psalm 23:1). In the Gospel we see the ‘Good Shepherd’ in action: “He took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He set Himself to teach them at some length.”
In the first reading Jeremiah indicts the official leaders for neglecting their duties towards the people. They must shoulder the blame for the misfortune that has befallen the nation. But God will not let His people languish. He Himself will assume the mantle of leadership, and entrust the flock to good and faithful shepherds: “I will raise up shepherds to look after them….” “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 his day’s Judah will be saved and Israel dwell in confidence, and this is the name he will be called: ’The Lord — our integrity’”.
In today’s Gospel we see this promise from the book of Jeremiah fulfilled in Jesus ‘The Good Shepherd.’ The image of the shepherd is one that we think people can easily understand, however, they may not be aware of the true reality of what being a shepherd entails. — the Shepherd has to herd his sheep, count them, sheer them, dip them, dose them, protect them from marauding dogs and wild animals; and on occasions drag them out of a ditch, or pull a briar or piece of barbed wire from their suffering wool: This might give us an insight to some of the duties a shepherd inevitably encounters. But even this doesn’t give the full impact of the ‘shepherd’ image. It is a given that the relationship between shepherd and sheep was extraordinarily close. The shepherd didn’t just go out to work in the morning or the evening to look after the sheep, he was their constant companion, he stayed with them all day long, and at night time he brought them into the sheepfold, every single one of them; to protect them from wolves and other threats to their safety. His was the sole responsibility. Unlike today’s modern shepherds who use sheepdogs to guide and drive the sheep, the shepherd in Our Lord’s day would lead them into the sheepfold, he walked in front of them. They followed him, they knew him, and, more amazingly from our point of view he knew every one of them by name. So the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep was one of knowledge, trust, protectiveness, concern and dependence. It’s a perfect analogy for when Our Lord talks about being our shepherd, He’s using a beautiful pastoral image to tell us that He knows us, cares for us, protects us, and, no matter what happens, he stays with us: “I am the Good Shepherd…. I lay down my life for my sheep.” (Jn 10:14-15)
In the Gospel today we see the apostles return from their mission. They were ecstatic with the results of their labours but they were also exhausted. Our Lord recognises this and we immediately see the Good Shepherd in action, and the care Jesus has for His apostles. We also see the compassion he has for the ordinary people. We see His care for the ‘Twelve’, Jesus could see they were tired and He said to them: “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” In solitude with him they would hope to recover their vigour. The apostles doubtless had much to tell Jesus about their travels and still more to learn from Him. Jesus Himself, when able, went to a deserted spot to pray in a silent face to face encounter with His Father after days in which He had not had a free moment. (Mk 1:35). Jesus teaches the apostles that they must adopt a rhythm of life similar to His, with a balanced alternation of time generously given to others and solitude and prayer, this was to be the usual norm after intense activity. With this in mind, they headed towards Bethsaida near the spot where the River Jordan enters the Lake. South East of this place a great plain stretches away to the hillside, it might be described as a desert; but like the desert of Judah both plain and hills are green in the springtime. It was here they were to take their rest.
However, the apostles were about to learn another important lesson from the Master: they too were to be shepherds and their training was not yet complete. People had guessed their intention to go to this place and as they stepped from the boat, the people of the Eastern shore were already there, and they were soon joined by those from Capharnaum, by now a great crowd had gathered.
We have to admire the simplicity of the evangelist here. Mark is in no way concerned by this apparent disappointment, on the contrary he emphasises Jesus’ kindness. Jesus does not turn elsewhere with His apostles to find solitude, but is moved with compassion for “They were like sheep without a shepherd, and He set Himself to teach them at great length.” No time for rest now. Here again we see the urgency of Christ’s mission; although it was their original intention to rest, Jesus teaches the apostles that God seizes every opportunity: “He taught them at great length” Here Jesus feeds them with His word. He will later feed them with loaves and fishes and later still with His own Body and Blood.
Many incidents like those above give us insights into Jesus’ deep and genuine humanity. He was considerate and understanding of human weakness. He sometimes prepared food, for example, when He knew His disciples were hungry. Here, He suggests they rest, yet was quickly responsive to the ordinary people’s desire for His message. Jesus did not spare Himself, He could rest later. The apostles must have thought they too must have a reserve born of quiet time with God to respond to the unexpected.
We all need some silence in our lives. We need space— space to pray, to reflect, to retreat, to renew, to speak with our God. The Lord encourages this awareness in us. Life is busy, we need to take our opportunities when we can, because like the apostles we might be called into urgent action and our plans may change and sometimes at the most inopportune time. But we should always trust in the Lord and follow where He leads us, for He is ‘The Good Shepherd’ he is Our God — He knows our every need, He will not ask us to do something which is impossible for us to achieve. He is as considerate and delicate in His perception of our own personal needs as He was with His apostles’ fatigue. His concern for us has the same human and refined quality. We can be sure of this and depend on it in our prayers. Nothing that is a human concern of ours — no matter how small or insignificant it might seem — gets by His constant, careful regard for us.
“The Lord is my shepherd
there is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
Where He gives me repose.
Near restful waters He leads me,
To revive my drooping spirit.”
“He has prepared a banquet for me
In the sight of my foes…..” We shall find out more about this next week!