Of Sheep and Shepherds

Of Sheep and Shepherds

The Gospel for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time is just five verses long, but each of those verses reveals remarkable information and food for thought.

The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.  (Mark 6:30)  You might remember that last week we heard Jesus send his disciples off two by two to preach to the lost children of Israel.  He had told them to preach the very message that he had been preaching; namely, repent for the Kingdom of God is near.  He had also given them the power to cure illnesses and to expel demons.  When they returned, they were eager to share with Jesus all that they had done.  They were excited about what they had been able to do. 

Their excitement was caused in no small part by their view of the created universe.  These people saw God’s creations on five levels of strata.  First was God.  Second were God’s courtiers, the angels.  In third place were the spirits and demons that roamed the earth causing disease and misfortune.  Fourth was the human race.  Fifth and finally were the creatures of the animal world.  In their minds, Jesus had not only trusted them with his own mission, by giving them power over the spirits and demons, he had elevated them to a new stratum.  They would have been incredulous with joy at their good fortune.

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”  People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.  So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.  (Mark 6:31-32)  The choice of the word “deserted” is very curious here.  Withdrawing to such a place would have been looked upon with suspicion by the local people.  Secrets always are suspicious.  Not only that, deserted places were fraught with danger.  However, as we have heard several times in the Gospel of Mark already, Jesus often shared information with the disciples that he withheld from the crowd.  By escaping the “great numbers” that were present, Jesus is trying to continue to instruct the disciples in their mission.

People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.  (Mark 6:33)  By pursuing Jesus and his disciples, the townsfolk are not only displaying their curiosity, they are also expressing their desperation for leadership.  Jesus’ message had begun to resonate with the people, and his mighty deeds had struck them with awe at his power.  They were looking for someone in whom they could place their hope.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.  (Mark 6:34)  This verse displays the compassion of Jesus.  His heart is moved by the plight of these people who are so hungry for his words of wisdom that he is struck with pity for them.  Mark very cleverly sets up the scene for the next episode of the Gospel, the episode we will hear next Sunday, the feeding of the 5,000. 

What lessons are we meant to learn from these verses? 

First of all, we, like the disciples of Jesus, have been commissioned by Jesus to carry the message of the Gospel to others.  Jesus displays great confidence in us through this commission.  Indeed, history bears testimony to the fact that what began with a handful of men gathered around Jesus has become a worldwide movement which had come to be known as Christianity.  Just as the disciples were sent to preach Jesus’ message, so too are we sent.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, frequently urges us to not only read and meditate on the Gospel, but to be joyful preachers of the Gospel.  We are to carry the joy of the Gospel to those we meet every day.  Pope Francis has told us in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that when people meet us, they should be impressed with the Gospel joy that fills our lives.  We are not to be dour, sad and miserable people who look like they have come from a funeral.  No, we are to exude the joy of the Gospel by our day to day lives.

We are also reminded in this short Gospel of the necessity to withdraw from the daily busyness of life to spend time alone with the Lord in prayer.  We need to listen to the words of Jesus frequently.  If we are to live the Gospel, we must know the Gospel.  Again, Pope Francis has demonstrated the importance of this by distributing “pocket Gospel” to the crowds who come to see him in Rome.  Indeed, the bishops of the United States have done the same thing by making these pocket sized Gospels available to all through their website. 

Finally, the Gospel asks us to be the same kind of compassionate and caring people who look with love upon those who have lost their way.  As we share the joy of the Gospel, there is sometimes a tendency to become judgmental and critical of those who do not believe in the same truths or practice the same faith.  Would we not do far better if we looked upon them as “sheep without a shepherd”?  Our conversation with the world has become so divisive that it is difficult to hear anything of joy, anything of love and compassion.  All too often we simply turn away from the crowd and leave them to fend for themselves.  Again, Pope Francis has been an example of someone who reaches out to all people, especially to those who are usually on the outside looking in.  Indeed, this shepherd has been breaking new ground, has been raising issues that might make us uncomfortable, has been shaking things up.  However, he always does so with a voice of compassion and love.

As we gather around the table of the Lord today, as we are filled with the joy of the Gospel ourselves, let us resolve to be people who embody the joy of the Gospel and who reach out to all people, especially those who are so often marginalized.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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