Jul. 21, 2018

Sixteenth Sunday, 2018

THAT GOD GIVE US THE HEART OF A SHEPHERD

Readings: 1st- Jer. 23:1-6; 2nd- Eph. 2:13-18; Gospel- Mk. 6:30-34

The narrative of shepherding is very familiar in the Old Testament. Shepherding is one great way to express the relationship between God and Israel, God being presented as the shepherd of his flock. God taught Israel, cared for her, and would gather her from where she was scattered. The first exodus story was the event of God leading the Israelites faithfully out of Egypt. The Bible recounts God’s tenderness through to his flock in the Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”.

The first reading of today gives us a picture of the depraved shepherds of Israel. God is angry with these shepherds and lashes out for their extravagance. They mislead and scatter the sheep entrusted in their care. They simply disappoint God. Consequently, God decides to take the following actions in order to save his flock: First, God threatens to punish the shepherds for their evil deeds. Most importantly, God safeguards the flock by himself. He vows to take care of the “remnant” of the flock, and to gather them from wherever they are scattered. God promises to let the sheep increase and multiply, thereby starting all over again.

In the second part of that reading, the prophet Jeremiah introduces the language of kingship which is a popular image in ancient near east. God promises to raise a king from the descendants of David. David, as we know, is a king who was a great shepherd. The image of David here helps us to understand the relationship between shepherding and rulership. The future king will govern wisely and justly. The king’s name will be, “The Lord our justice.” 

Unlike the cruel shepherds of Israel condemned above, the monarchs ideally watch over the flock entrusted into their care. They rule as directed by God whereas God does not relent in establishing safety for his flock. God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none will be missing.” God does not derive joy in a missing sheep.

In the gospel, Jesus fulfils the messianic role of the shepherd. He receives the apostles after their missionary journey. He prepares to give them some rest from their work. As the apostles try to get away from the people, the people are coming after them. The gospel of Mark reports, “People were coming and going in great numbers.” However, Jesus knows what the people need: “When he disembarked (from the boat) 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” (Mk. 6:33-34).

Jesus demonstrates what the heart of the shepherd should be like. He is moved with pity for the people. He teaches them. He gathers them. He guides them. He refreshes their troubled souls. He comforts the sick and weak ones. He protects them. He keeps them safe. Jesus simply echoes God’s role of shepherding the people in the first exodus. He encounters the people in a deserted place and is present with them. He is the kingly shepherd whose kingdom brings justice to the flock. The heart of a shepherd brings peace to those who are far off as well as to those who are near. The heart of a shepherd speaks peace to God’s people. 

Who are today’s shepherds? Are the shepherds living up to God’s expectations of leading and guiding his flock? Are the shepherds still taking advantage of the flock? Of course, there are still bad shepherds. However, shepherds are primarily God’s ministers. Shepherds hold positions of leadership. The shepherds have special duties: to care, guide, lead, direct, and comfort the flock. The ministers of the church serve as God’s shepherd. God expects these ministers to be like the chief shepherd, to make themselves available for the sheep, lest they scatter as if there is no shepherd. God expects his shepherd to be positively present to the flock.

Parents are shepherds in the family. As shepherds, parents lead and guide their children. Parents keep the children safe. Parents direct their children. Parents teach their children. Parents ensure the safety of their children. Parents also bring their children back if they wander away. We are aware that obviously, things don’t always go smoothly among siblings. Sometimes, sibling-violence and conflict become part of the relationship dynamics among children. Children take offense at each other and even fight. Sometimes, these fights are minor, at other times they are huge and lead to divisions among family members. Some children pull out of family communications and sever relationships as a result of that. The bad parenting style would take sides with some children and not others. Some parents get roped into the triangles and become part of the fight. Such triangles shut persons out and damage the role of shepherding. 

As parents, try not to take sides in your children’s fights. Try not to favor some and disfavor others. Even if you have special affection for a particular child than others (which could happen), try to manage it as a good shepherd would manage his flock. The good shepherd takes a middle ground. The good shepherd sacrifices to make peace for the sake of the family. 

Saint Paul tells us in the second reading that Jesus made peace by breaking down the “wall of enmity through his flesh.” Jesus sacrificed himself for everyone. Jesus sacrificed his flesh- his body and blood- to bring both those far and near together under one shepherd. Parents have to sacrifice for the peace of their flock- their children. 

I challenge parents today to look at their parenting styles and see if any of their children have been cut off because of their parenting approach. See if there is any spoken or unspoken style you adopt that makes a particular child or two to feel excluded. See if you covertly or overtly favor others. Ask yourself why that is happening. God is inviting parents to acquire a shepherd’s heart. A shepherd’s heart comforts. A shepherd’s heart guides. A shepherd’s heart directs. A shepherd’s heart leads. A shepherd’s heart shows pity. A shepherd’s heart makes sacrifice. A shepherd’s heart, above all, loves. A shepherd’s heart advocates for justice. Pray for a shepherd’s heart to govern your family as parents. 

May the Lord give us the heart of a shepherd to care for those entrusted into our care. Amen.