Originally the kings of Israel were known as shepherds because their primary duty was to take care of the people they were called to serve. Judging by Jeremiah’s scathing remarks today, he was not happy with their shepherding. Today the Church has taken over this metaphor and uses it to characterise its leaders as shepherds. This is especially true of Bishops. The crozier they carry represents the simple shepherd’s crook. But it’s not just bishops who are shepherds even though they play a key role. Priests, sisters and catechists and not least parents are called to various roles of leadership in the church. Therefore it’s incumbent on all of us to listen to the warning of Jeremiah because we are all baptized to carry on Jesus’ mission, and that includes being shepherds for one another. And a good sound byte is not enough. We may have good crowds at the liturgy, and we may be proud of our Catholic charities, but what about the masses of people who remain hungry in every sense of the word? Are we responding? Pope John XXIII once said, as long as there is one man in prison, I am not a free man.
The desperate situation of humanity and indeed our planet makes it more important than ever that we play our part in shepherding each other and indeed the earth. Yesterday a bomb in Iraq killed 120 people while another 170 were injured and badly maimed. And sadly, it hardly makes a headline. Then there is human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirm, and various forms of corruption and criminal activity. My hunch is that today Jesus is commissioning us to go out and heal this world. He is looking for women and men of faith that believe that it is only the Gospel that can the dignity of human life to its deserved glory. Jesus needs us, yes, you and me. “I have no hands but yours, not feet but yours.”
The warning of the prophet Jeremiah is a warning for all of us but I would like to say something about the deep crisis in the priesthood today. We are ageing by the day and there is a big decrease in numbers. But there are more serious concerns. The crisis in the priesthood points to a deeper crisis of faith. Where there are strong faith communities there are priests. In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ Pope Francis points to a serious malaise in our church and warns against complacency. “Today we are seeing in many pastoral workers, including consecrated men and women, an inordinate concern for their personal freedom and relaxation, which leads them to see their work as a mere appendage to their life. … One can observe in many agents of evangelization, even though they pray, a heightened individualism, a crisis of identity and a cooling of fervor. These are three evils which fuel one another.”
This discouraging picture does not mean we should despair. There is a silver lining in the first reading. After condemning the rulers of his day, the Lord, speaking through the prophet, promises that he now will be our shepherd. True to his word Jesus now is our Good Shepherd and Psalm 23 sums up the qualities of Jesus are there for us, if only we allow him to be our shepherd. Therefore it becomes us to let Jesus be the centre of our lives. Notice that the apostles who were sent out by Jesus (last Sunday’s gospel) return to him today and gather around him, eager to tell him how they got on. They didn’t stay away basking in the glow of their success. Why? Because Jesus is key to everything they do. It’s their relationship with Jesus that counts. It is Jesus who commissions us and before we can be shepherd to others, we must first of all allow him to be shepherd to us. And we need desert time with him, away from the madding crowd so that he can speak to our hearts.
Staying close to Jesus we cannot but be affected by his compassion. We see Jesus fixing his gaze on the crowd. He knows how to look, not just at the concrete persons in front of him, but also at that mass of people made up of men and women without voice, face, or any special importance. Right away compassion is awakened in him. He can’t avoid it. “He took pity on them”. He brings all of them right into his heart. To be with Jesus is to be gripped by that same compassion.
The compassion takes on a different shape today. On other occasions Jesus took pity on sinners and forgave them or on the sick and healed them. But today on seeing a whole people – rich and poor, healthy and sick – he teaches them at some length. This may seem strange to a modern society that tries to live in a God-free zone and carry on their lives free of any divine interference. But Jesus wants to impress on us the big picture. Therefore he teaches us to become aware of the deeper needs of our humanity: to see ourselves as the Father’s children, to work together to build the kingdom, and the need to journey through life towards our true home. Jesus both teaches us of our fundamental dependency on God, and of the love that God constantly offers us.
As regards sitting at the feet of Jesus, I imagine there would be something awesome about his presence. And what he would be imparting is not lots of info and facts. If that were the case we could look up Google today. What Jesus imparts is wisdom, the wisdom that knows that our lives are incomplete without acknowledging who we are as creatures within a God-given universe.
The people hurried after him, and he set about teaching them at length. There is a lovely passion in that word ‘hurried’. Are we willing to sit as students at the feet of Jesus, like Mary in the Martha and Mary story — and be taught at length?
Sunday, July 19, 2015