By Father Donald Dilger
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
Jeremiah was very young when the Lord called him to be his spokesman as a prophet in the Kingdom of Judah. Like some other prophets, he was unwilling to accept his vocation. The Lord would not listen to excuses. “Do not say you are only a youth, for all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Behold, I have put my words into your mouth.” The years of his ministry were approximately 626-582 B.C. He lived through the decline and fall of the kingdom to the Neo-Babylonian Empire of King Nebuchadnezzar. To civil authorities of Judah, his message was unacceptable, warning about the doom of the kingdom. He proclaimed Babylon as the Lord’s scourge to be inflicted for rampant social injustice. After the first wave of exiles was taken to Babylon in 598 B.C., Jeremiah urged cooperation with Babylon.
To those who agitated for rebellion against this superpower, Jeremiah’s advice was treasonous. After the conquest of Jerusalem, the Babylonians gave him a choice – remain in Jerusalem or accompany the exiles to Babylon.
Our first reading is a sequel to a collection of oracles against the kings of Judah. The time is circa 597 B.C. This was soon after the Babylonians removed young King Jehoiachin and took away the first wave of exiles. On the throne of the Kingdom of Judah, they placed Zedekiah. Jeremiah was fed up with unworthy kings and proclaimed the oracle against shepherds, part of which is our reading. The metaphor "shepherd" for a ruler was as old as Israel and was used for God, kings, and priests. Jeremiah begins his attack, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. You have scattered my sheep and driven them away…, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” Because of the failure of leadership the Lord himself will take on the role of shepherd. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…, and bring them back to their meadow.” He promises to raise up worthy shepherds. Jeremiah elaborates on the job description of an ideal king/shepherd. “I will raise up a righteous descendant to David. As king he shall reign and govern wisely.” The fact that the ideal king never arose from the line of David led to the interpretation of this oracle as a prediction of the Messiah. For Christians, that king is Jesus Christ.
Psalm 23 is the obvious choice to respond to the first reading. No longer do we hear of kings but of the King of Kings. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The psalmist envisions green pastures and cool waters for the flock. Seeing himself as one of the sheep, the psalmist expresses confidence that the Lord Shepherd will keep him on the right path. Even when walking in darkness he knows that his Shepherd is with him to guide and to comfort. He switches from the shepherd/sheep metaphor to a household. “You spread the table before me. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” The household evolves into the temple of the Lord, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.”
The reading from Ephesians is an appeal for peace in the Christian community between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. In this brief excerpt, the word "peace’’ occurs four times. This mostly racial division was a major problem in the first Christian century. Under other names, the problem is still with us. The blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit demands unity. “Both Jew and Gentile have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Racial divisions are difficult to overcome. This particular racial division faded as the Church became overwhelming Gentile.
In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus sent his disciples two by two on their first mission. In today’s gospel, they return. Notice Mark’s first words in this narrative, "The apostles." He uses this term only twice for the chosen twelve. Most appropriate here, since apostle means "one who has been sent." The apostles had just been sent on their first mission. Instead of the term apostles, Mark uses the term disciples forty-six times throughout the gospel. This fits in with his oft-used term "Teacher" for Jesus because the Greek word he uses for disciple means "learner." After their debriefing, a very understanding Jesus says, “Come away by yourselves to a wilderness and rest a while.” Mark adds, “…for many were coming and going, and they had no opportunity even to eat.” The Sea of Galilee is always at hand for a getaway, so they got into a boat. The destination is not given, but the enthusiastic crowd must have suspected the destination. They saw them leave, ran and got there ahead of them. Privacy and rest were not to be. As Jesus came ashore he saw a huge crowd waiting for him. Here comes the connection with the first reading and the response psalm, “His heart was moved with compassion for them," just as the Lord God shows compassion in Jeremiah’s oracle and in Psalm 23.
The next line in the gospel clearly establishes the theme of shepherd and sheep. “They were like sheep without a shepherd.” Our gospel authors are always aware of Old Testament background to the words and deeds of Jesus. They weave that background into their narratives. In this case, we see a direct relationship with Numbers 27:16-17. Moses knows that he will soon die. He prays as follows, “Let the Lord, who knows the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” In that context, the Lord appointed Joshua as shepherd. Mark sees Jesus as the shepherd. Mark is the first gospel to apply shepherd terminology to Jesus. How does Jesus act as shepherd on this occasion? “He began to teach them many things.” This Shepherd’s compassion extends not only to feeding their souls, but also feeding their bodies. Mark has led us to the miracle of feeding five thousand in the wilderness. For that narrative, next week’s liturgy takes us to the Gospel of John.