In the ancient world, leadership was often described using the imagery of shepherds and sheep. This imagery appears throughout the Bible to depict God’s people (the sheep) and their leaders (the shepherds). However, today’s Psalm, the well-known Psalm 23, makes it clear that God himself is the primary shepherd and leader of his people: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” The prophet Isaiah characterizes God in a similar way: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care” (Is 40:11).
God, the principal and primary shepherd of his flock, also appoints some human leaders over his people, and these leaders are also called shepherds. The human shepherds of the Old Testament often failed to care for God’s people; instead, they misled them. In the first reading, in response to the failure of the shepherds, God announces through the prophet Jeremiah that he will punish them for their evil deeds and their irresponsibility: “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”
However, what is more important in God’s response to the failures of the human shepherds is that he announces a message of great hope. He promises: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from where I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they will increase and multiply.” This promise powerfully expresses God’s unfailing and everlasting care and concern for us his flock. And then, to demonstrate that he is not a distant God who stands aloof from the plight of his people, he prophesies the coming of a Messiah-Shepherd who will more than adequately lead, teach and feed his flock: “Behold, the days are coming when I will raise a righteous shoot to David; as king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security.”
Today’s Gospel and second reading show that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of all that God promised through the prophet Jeremiah. He is the one who will gather his scattered flock and will provide them with real security and salvation. His pastoral concern is first directed toward the missionaries he sent out. He says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” As the Good Shepherd Jesus cares for both the physical and spiritual needs of those who spend themselves in his service. His invitation to rest shows us that being with Jesus is what renews us; he is the real source and foundation of all fruitful pastoral ministry. He is inviting us today to spend time alone with him, to be strengthened by him and renewed for the continuation of his ministry.
It is striking to note that Jesus’ plan to take his Apostles away for a rest is thwarted by the pressing need of the vast crowd. St. Mark tells us that “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This interior reaction of Jesus to the plight of the crowd gives us a glimpse into his identity. The Scriptures tell us that pity or compassion is one of the most distinctive attributes of God (cf. Ps 86:15, Is 54:7-8). So the reaction of Jesus who is moved with pity for the crowd and begins to feed them reveals to us that he is God. He recognizes that the crowds are like a sheep without a shepherd. As their true Shepherd, Jesus leaves behind every other thing including his own rest in order to tend to his needy flock. This is truly how Jesus looks upon us and cares for us. He continues to “teach us many things” to this very day!
Jesus once said that he came that his flock may have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). The abundant life he offers us is foreshadowed in today’s beautiful Responsorial Psalm, which depicts God as our shepherd with whom we lack nothing. To provide us with this abundance, the Good Shepherd chose to lay down his life for his sheep. Through the shedding of his blood on the Cross – which is the perfect expression of his love – and through his glorious Resurrection on the third day, Jesus the Good Shepherd makes the green pasture available for us. The green pasture is our reconciliation with God and with one another.
This reconciliation is the great truth that St. Paul talks about in today’s second reading, from his Letter to the Ephesians. He writes: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.” Our Shepherd “came and preached peace” and sacrificed himself for peace. He continues to nourish us with his word and with his own Body and Blood. Because of his love, we have every reason to be confident on our pilgrimage to his house. “Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life.”
How can I remain in the presence of Jesus, the Good Shepherd? Am I confident that Christ will provide for my needs? Do I pray for all the shepherds of the Church?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.