Proper 11: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2.11-end; Mark 6.30-34, 53-end
TWO weeks ago, our Gospel reading recounted Jesus’s sending out of the 12 disciples. This Sunday, it describes the response to their mission. In between these two passages, Mark has told the story of King Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. it is a striking juxtaposition. The disciples’ proclamation that “all should repent” (Mark 6.12) met with an enthusiastic reception among the poor of Galilee. By contrast, the King was so enthralled by status, wealth, and pleasure that he ignored John’s call to turn from his sinful ways.
When Jesus took the Twelve away to rest, many recognised them and “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them”. Seeing the spiritual hunger of the crowd, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”.
These words recall our Old Testament reading, where the Lord berates the leaders of Jeremiah’s day who have “scattered my flock” and “not attended to them”. They have pursued their own interests and failed to stay close to the flock entrusted to their care. Jeremiah holds them responsible for the nation’s exile. “The compelling metaphor of sheep and shepherd makes a powerful political statement. Mismanaged royal power is the cause of exile. Neglected sheep will predictably be scattered” (Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and homecoming).
In Jesus’s day, the failure of their political and religious leaders again leaves the crowds like “sheep without a shepherd”. St Augustine denounces the “false shepherds” who look only to their own interests, “feeding themselves and not the flock”. But he also warns against shepherds who are “negligent” for “fear of giving offence”. The crowds in this Sunday’s Gospel have responded not to a message of easy affirmations, but to a call to acknowledge and turn from their sin.
Because of the failure of so many of their earthly shepherds, the promise of Jeremiah — fulfilled beyond the prophet’s imagination in the incarnation — is that the Lord himself will become the shepherd. This Sunday’s psalm also speaks of God, rather than earthly leaders, as Israel’s true shepherd.
In her study of the reception history of the Psalms, Susan Gillingham describes how Christians from the earliest times have understood these verses to apply to Christ, and in particular to his ongoing presence in the sacraments. As she explains, St Ambrose was among the first to develop the idea.
St Gregory of Nyssa reads the 23rd Psalm as offering a “type of journey through the sacraments”, in which “verse 2 is about being buried with Christ at baptism, going through the valley of death (verse 4) to rise again with Christ. Verse 5 speaks of arriving at the sacramental table, and being anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit; there we are brought wine which gladdens our hearts with sober intoxication” (Psalms Through the Centuries: Volume Two).
Pope Francis reminds us that this “anointing” is given to the Church so that it can continue the ministry of Christ in each new generation. Like our Lord, we are “anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed”. For this reason, those who are shepherds in the Church must stay close to their flock and have “the smell of the sheep”. A Christlike Church must be “a field hospital” for those on the margins of society rather than a “serene” gathering of the respectable.
That is the pattern that Jesus gives us in this Sunday’s Gospel, where we see him immersed in the lives of the poorest Galileans. As he goes into towns, villages, and farms, Mark tells us that “they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak.”
While our Gospel reading speaks of Jesus’s ministry within Israel, our epistle celebrates its extension to embrace the Gentiles. Those who were “far off” — who had previously been “strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” — are now “brought near” to him in Christ.
As Margaret MacDonald observes, there is a universality to this image (Sacra Pagina Commentary: Colossians and Ephesians). In Christ, “strangers” of all races and social classes are invited to be “citizens with the saints” and “members of the household of God”. In each generation, the Church is called to be a place of welcome, in which God’s many children can find their home.