What it is to be a Shepherd in the Church today?
Once again we begin by listening to the words of a prophet. Today it is Jeremiah, who has some harsh words for the leaders of Israel, both religious and political. Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered – it is the Lord who speaks! Jeremiah lived through a period of great political instability as the Assyrian empire declined and the Babylonian arose – and came into conflict with Egypt. Israel and Judah were small states buffeted by conflicts between the great powers. They entered into alliances with their neighbours and this invariably led to the introduction of foreign gods and the growth of syncretic forms of worship. A succession of prophets denounced the contamination of Judaism. Jeremiah was one of the greatest of them, repeatedly calling the people back to the alliance. At the same time he stressed God’s love for his Chosen People.
Thus, in the passage we heard just now, God rebukes the bad leaders – I will take care of you for your misdeeds, he says – and promises a remedy to the situation. The remnant of my flock I myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their pastures: they shall be fruitful and increase in numbers. I will raise up shepherds to look after them and pasture them.
Then we come to the kernel of the promise: See, the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks – when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel dwell in confidence … he will be called: The Lord-our-integrity. Long before, through the prophet Nathan, God had promised King David that his line would not die out. No doubt David would have understood that to mean that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne of Israel. But that wasn’t exactly what God had promised. In Jeremiah’s time the king was still a descendant of David, but he was not a great success. From where we stand it is easy to see that this prophecy is an announcement of the Messiah, the king whose kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is not a political entity; it is a community of all those who respect the religious and moral terms of the covenant.
Today’s gospel follows straight on from last week’s in which, you will remember, Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs to heal and teach the villagers as they had seen him do. Now they have returned. Probably they were full of excitement and wanted to share their experiences. Jesus said: You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while. That’s what he said, but it didn’t happen because so many people were coming and going. They attempted to escape the crowds by going off in a boat, but people saw them going, and many could guess where and hurried off by the land route to meet them. When Jesus stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
The implication here is that Jesus let the disciples rest while he looked after the crowd. You will remember a beautiful aria in Handel’s oratorio Messiah which begins “And he shall feed his flock, like a shepherd”. Those words are based on a passage from the prophet Isaiah which, in the Jerusalem Bible, reads: Here is the Lord God coming with power, his arm subduing all things … He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes. There are other examples too in the Old Testament where God is presented as the Shepherd of Israel defending and nourishing his people. Once Israel became a monarchy, the theory was that the human king was God’s viceroy. In Biblical wisdom literature there is a tradition of using ‘feeding’ as an image of teaching, and ‘bread’ as an image of knowledge.
Drawing these images together, Jesus’ response to the people who seemed like sheep without a shepherd, is to conduct himself as a king of Israel should do. In the first place he teaches but he also cares for their physical needs. I give you notice now that next week he will feed a multitude and we shall begin to read the “bread of life” discourse from St John’s gospel which is Jesus’ great instruction on the Eucharist. In every sense, then, Jesus will feed his flock – like a shepherd.
Let us look for a moment at today’s epistle. As you know, St Paul was a zealous Jew before he became a Christian, and when he did become a Christian he was more zealous than ever in promoting his faith in Jesus Christ. There were probably Jewish communities in most of the towns of Asia Minor. Yet the majority of the inhabitants of a place like Ephesus were of other races and worshipped other gods. So in writing to the Christians there he can say: You that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. Christ has broken down the barrier which used to separate pagans from Jews. In saying that, Paul may have had in mind the physical barrier in the Temple in Jerusalem which non-Jews might not pass. The Ephesians were probably not so fussy about who entered their famous temple of Diana. By the time this letter was written, Christians were no longer welcome in the Jerusalem Temple, and believers of pagan origin were able to join Christians at worship in house churches. So Christ had brought the two groups together, as Paul says: This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the cross, to unite them both in a single Body and reconcile them with God. I won’t develop this point further just now. Suffice it to say that St Paul is the first theologian of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Reverting briefly to shepherds in the Church, there is no need for me to tell you that there have been pastors who abused their flock; there have been bishops who did not prevent them. The media report these painful facts fully. For the record it may interest you to know of a problem which used to exist in the Church but has now disappeared, so far as I know, completely. It is that of bishops not residing in their dioceses. I am talking about Europe before the end of the XVIIIth century. In those days most bishops were younger sons of noble families. Some dioceses were practically family fiefs. Apart from that, in southern Italy – for instance – many dioceses were centred on small towns which were rather dull places for an educated man to live. So bishops often found excuses for spending a lot of their time in cities like Naples or Rome. In 1700 there were no fewer than 102 bishops residing in Rome – and very few of them had actual responsibilities in the Curia. The Council of Trent over a century earlier had required bishops to reside in their dioceses but it was not until the pontificate of Benedict XIII in the 1720s that serious attempts were made to enforce the requirement.
The Church today still needs lots of good shepherds. I appeal to you parents, godparents, grandparents to encourage the young people for whom you have responsibility to be alert to the possibility that God is calling them to his service. Despite the hazards of the task, and the modest financial rewards, it is a very satisfying vocation. Never let it be said that you tried to turn someone away from it. (Q.Howard)
21 & 22-07-2012
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