Our Prior, Fr. Joel Macul gave the homily this morning:
Woe! Doom! to the shepherds of the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. Jeremiah’s prophetic word woe should make us sit up straight. Something has gone terribly wrong with the leadership in Israel. The evidence is seen in the flock. It has been misled and it is scattered. This accusation of the leadership of God’s people is not just poetic license on the part of God or the prophet. This was the situation for Jeremiah in the 7th century before our era. The monarchy and leadership in Israel was generally defunct. The direct result of the failure of leadership was that the people, the flock, was taken away and scattered in exile. They were no longer at home. The Lord reproaches the shepherds for irresponsibility, for not caring for the community, for offering no guidance especially in difficult times. Elsewhere he says they abused the community economically as well, making the poor poorer and the leaders getting fatter. They key word to describe the flock is ‘scattered.’ They were scattered physically, they were scattered religiously. There was no king, there was no temple. The symbols and institutions that could hold them together were disappearing. The sin of leadership was to cause the flock to fall apart, to have no sense of coherence around the God who made covenant with them. The sin of the leadership was that they no longer walked with the people but had their own life aloof. The result was the breakdown of both community and shepherd. This judgement could easily hold today even in our Church, sad to say. We need only think of the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal that has pulled us apart in this country and elsewhere. What Jeremiah condemns is not confined to 7th c. Israel. It is repeated in politics and religion over the centuries.
But God remains the Lord of his people. And so he himself will take on the care of his people. And what does God’s care look like? I will gather the remnant wherever they have been scattered, I will bring them back, none shall be missing, says the Lord. The Lord’s way of shepherding is to bring together what is lost, missing, disoriented, scattered. The Lord is not about pushing away, separating, dividing people into near and far. The Lord is about a unity that brings us together. When he says that no one will be missing, that means that care is personal, each is accounted for. The Lord is the one who knows each one of those in the community. We are not anonymous but named. That is the Lord’s care, the recognition of the dignity of each person in the community. And not just recognition, but a guidance that allows each one to grow into their gifted self. The community the Lord is creating is a community not based on fear of the other; in the community that Lord gathers, all can be present without trembling in front of one another; all are at peace with one another, reconciled and made whole.
Jeremiah goes on with a word of hope about leadership, about the shepherd, about the one who leads. The Lord promises that out of the stump of David’s line, there will be a new leader who knows how to lead. The Lord of the covenant remembers his promise to David. While leadership is now defunct, it will not always be so. There will be someone from the community to carry on the David’s line of ruler. There will be wisdom and justice in this new leader. This new ruler will be characterized by justice. He will restore the right relationship between the community and God, between the members of the community with one another, between the community and the new king. The prophet even goes further to give a name to this new shepherd: “The Lord our justice.”
We joined in this hope for a true shepherd, a true leader and guide in our response “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” This is our act of faith in what Jeremiah promises. It is a true expression of our desire. The Lord is the leader of his people. He it is who guides us through the darkness of our lives and leads us to pastures where we feed at a wonderful banquet. What we receive from this Shepherd is goodness and kindness throughout our life.
Now fast forward from Jeremiah’s time about 400 years later. And what do we find in the hills and by the Sea of Galilee? We find this man called Jesus who looks like one of us. But when he steps out of a boat looking for a quiet spot to rest and eat with his followers, he is confronted with the reality of the community. People coming and going; a vast crowd that seems disoriented, scattered in spirit to say the least. Mark says that Jesus saw them like sheep without a shepherd—just as Jeremiah saw them centuries before. A crowd waiting for a leader, for someone who will gather them, a person who will bring them together. They have heard and seen something attractive in this Jesus and they run after him, the crowd of sheep.
And what happens to Jesus at this moment with this mass of humanity looking for something and perhaps not being able to articulate it. Mark records that when Jesus stepped out of the boat he looked, he saw. The first sign that something different was happening here. He saw and recognized the situation. He did not run, he did not grumble that his time alone with his followers was to be interrupted. No, he stayed with what he saw. The first act of the shepherd is to see, to truly see—he saw a scattered disjointed humanity. That is what Jesus the shepherd saw. And what he saw grabbed him at the core of his being. The translation says “his heart was moved with pity for them.” The word for pity is really the word for ‘gut’. What he saw, he felt in his gut. What he saw caused a reaction of a deep movement of care for these people. What Mark is trying to convey is that what Jesus saw with his eyes stirred up a feeling of deep love and compassion in his heart. Behind this feeling lies the Hebrew word rahamim. It says it best. What Jesus saw awoke in him a womb-like love, a love like a woman has for her very own child. Jesus, says Mark, saw his own flesh and blood scattered, lost fragmented. This moved the Shepherd in him to compassion and so he began to teach them. What they needed first was to be fed with a word, a word that would hold them together as one.
What is compassion? Compassion is a love that moves us toward another. That will be the root of the Good Shepherd’s care. Compassion is what will bring the community together. Jesus the Good Shepherd will be the leader of the community. It is his compassion, St. Paul says, that will break down any wall of separation and bring us together. Unity is God’s ultimate goal and now there is a shepherd leader who can teach us about the compassion that is at the heart of unity, that is the thread that can bind us into one person. Truly in Jesus has come the King who both makes the unity among us happen and teaches us how to make the peace from the unity flow into our times.
It all begins by stepping out of the boat of our lives and looking and allowing what we see, the scatteredness, the fragmentation, the separation, to move our hearts. Then, we disciples of Jesus join together with him in a compassion that binds together, heals and works for peace.