Jul 18, 2015

16th Sunday: The hungry Sheep

Jer 23: 1-6
Eph 2: 13-18
Mk 6: 30-34

Our Gospel passage from Mark implies today that Jesus took advantage of a teachable moment and offered the adoring crowd a long sermon.  We read in Mark today that, “Jesus 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.”  His pity leads him to offer a long homily!

Yet, taking a lesson from our own famed President Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg address we know that President Lincoln delivered more in just over three minutes than old “what’s his name” who spoke before him for more than two hours at the dedication of that Civil War cemetery in Pennsylvania.  Yet, the issue in the Gospel is not so much the length of teaching but rather the hunger of the crowds. What does Mark imply these crowds are hungry for?

Certainly it may be food.  Jesus and his apostles have gone off to a deserted place after these twelve men return from an arduous missionary journey. They search for some rest and to take a break from the crowds they encountered.  Yet, the desperate people in an almost humorous scene, run ahead of them and head them off at the pass as it were. I would suspect the reaction of the disciples would likely be more like my own – maybe some immediate frustration.

So, it may be good that we know only Jesus’ reaction to the anxious crowds and that was pity or in other words, compassion.  Jesus recognized their hunger and that his teaching satisfied a deep need for the them: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness. As we read further and in other places as well, we see the apostles at this time also needed to be fed and to come to know Jesus on a much deeper and personal level. While the hunger well could have been physical an even deeper immediate need was spiritual. They searched for something that will never grow short or only prove disappointing.

But, we don’t often acquaint hunger with our spiritual life. If we’re lonely for example, we may easily tie it to the fact that my marital situation is difficult at this time.  If I feel a little down or somewhat bored I may just say “it’s something I ate” or “maybe I’m clinically depressed and need some sort of medication to pick me up” or maybe I need to start a hobby of some sort.  If I pray and find no particular satisfaction I may say that God no longer listens to me.  Any variation on those statements may not trigger a thought that I could well be spiritually starving. 

Jesus identified the need of the crowds at first.  They were lost, “like sheep without a shepherd.” In ancient times sheepherding was not as sophisticated as today’s more modern methods.  The shepherd didn’t just check in on the sheep occasionally, he spent the entire day with them.  He lived with them, protected them, led them, cared for them in ways that made ancient shepherds somewhat of a marginal class.  You can imagine how they smelled, what they dressed like or how when entering the more populated areas they were likely not welcomed with open arms as they often begged for food or money.

Yet, Jesus’ image of a shepherd with his sheep is rich with the same relationship.  Like the shepherds of old, he lives with his sheep, he cares for them, he protects them, he shares their joys and sorrows.  The image of God which Jesus presented to the people was so unlike what they heard in their Temple or synagogues.

While the God of the Hebrew people led them from slavery to freedom under the leadership of Moses his chosen prophet, the God which Jesus presented is that same God with much more intent. His is the Good Shepherd and Father to his people; a shepherd not just to a chosen race but to all humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. This is not a God who is distant, untouchable and mysterious.  Rather a God who intimately knows his people (sheep), cares for their needs and shares in their personal concerns and suffering. Why, then, wouldn’t the vast crowd hunger for more of that kind of message?

The scene of the vast crowd, which remained and soon will be fed miraculously by Jesus as bread and fish are multiplied, could easily be an image of the Church and of humanity as well. We are reminded today that God alone can fulfill us and satisfy our deepest needs.  If we live a purely materialistic life, we will always have that sense of incompleteness or of longing for more that will only entertain us but never complete us or bring us a lasting peace. There is a reason why the Church exists and why Jesus founded it – because we need this community of faith where we find the Lord and share in his Word, the sacraments, and the grace that he desires to give us along with the support of like-minded folks who are family members brought together through baptism, faith and tradition that binds us together.  

People may get angry at the Church and complain about the treatment or lack thereof they receive or be offended by a message they feel is unjust or exclusionary. They may be scandalized by behavior of “bad” shepherds or alternatively, hopefully much more often, inspired by and grateful for them. So, in the end, while human shepherds may fall short, Christ never will. 

It may be good to examine where you are at the present time.  Is my faith stagnant or growing? Do I feel spiritually satisfied or long for more?  Where do I spend my energies and passions and what role does my participation in the Church play in all of this?  Am I a sheep who listens for the Shepherd or just occasionally check-in to be momentarily fed? 

Our sharing in the Eucharist is a sharing in the Bread of Life, Christ Jesus himself.  Can you imagine anything more satisfying?

He came to preach peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

(Second reading Eph 2: 13-18)