This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 6:30–34:
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.
When he disembarked 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.
One of the earliest images of Christ in the church was that of the Good Shepherd. Icons in the Holy Land and in Rome depict Christ with a lamb across his shoulders in places that date back to the first centuries of the church. However, as we see in today’s readings, the image of the Lord as a shepherd goes back as far as David’s time, and even back as far as Joseph, another boy shepherd who became a great leader of Israel centuries before David’s anointing.
In our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah talks explicitly of a great ruler to come who will shepherd Israel again. By Jeremiah’s time, the kingdom of David has torn itself in two, and the northern kingdom has already fallen to the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah has already begun to fall into the Babylonian exile; Jeremiah prophesies the fall of Jerusalem unless Judah repents, but is largely ignored. The fall of both kingdoms resulted from the decision to pursue worldly power rather than to fulfill the mission of God’s people to serve as a nation of priests and to remain holy and true to the covenant. The Lord had called both kingdoms to be shepherds to the Israelites and Judeans.
Instead, the shepherds had betrayed the flocks, Jeremiah warned, and the Lord’s wrath would be on them:
Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: 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. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up 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. This is the name they give him: “The LORD our justice.”
The people of the Lord had been led astray, and the power of those shepherds had to be destroyed. This was a lesson that the Lord had to teach over and over again — that the power of shepherds comes from Him, not from themselves and certainly not for themselves. A shepherd’s duty is to lovingly care for each of its members, to protect them from all dangers, to keep them from going astray, and to lead them to safe pastures and then back home.
Today’s reading from the most well-known of all psalms, Psalm 23 (Psalm 22 in some arrangements), is a poem of comfort for the flock. David’s six-verse psalm expresses joy in the Lord as a shepherd, but it’s also an instruction on shepherding for those who would serve the Lord. Such a shepherd should provide food, water, protection, and loving care.
Jeremiah promises that the Lord will provide a great Shepherd from the House of David to fulfill the mission of God’s people. Zechariah does as well in the time of the first return from Babylonian captivity, more than a century after Jeremiah. The promise of a new shepherd for Israel was well known by the time Mark’s Gospel makes reference to Jesus as shepherd in dealing with the crowd, and by the time Jesus uses the image pointedly in His parables.
In this Gospel reading, Jesus fulfills that prophesy in two ways. Mark makes explicit reference to the image in His love and care for the crowd. However, Jesus’ sheltering of the disciples hearkens back to Jeremiah’s promise from the Lord to provide new shepherds to Israel, too.
Consider what it must have been like for the disciples. They took no provisions at all, relying on the charity of those they visited. We do not know how long or far they traveled, but it had to have been some time and distance in order to effectively spread the word. Unlike those of us traveling these days with smartphones and Internet connections, they had no way of communicating back to a home office until they themselves returned to Jesus. The disciples had to do this in a land under foreign occupation, where the people were at times very unreceptive to the message, as the Nazarenes were just before they left. Just the mere act of going on this mission was an act of tremendous faith, not knowing for certain when they would return or even whether they would all meet again.
When they return, the disciples had to have been exhausted, but they still wanted to tell Jesus all about their travels and successes. Jesus, however, is more concerned for them. Rather than have them continue to work, He leads them to a place where they can rest and recover from their journey. In the words of Psalm 23, Jesus leads them to a “green pasture,” where he gives them rest. The purpose of this seems to be to refresh their bodies, but perhaps also to refresh their souls.
However, having drawn a crowd, Jesus realizes that He must now shepherd them as well. After having spent several hours teaching them, the disciples remind Jesus that the people will need to eat before leaving and ask what they should buy. Rather than have the disciples provision for food, Jesus performs the miracle of the Multiplication, making five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough food for thousands. Once again, He has provided a pasture and the refreshment of both body and soul, this time for the crowd as well as the disciples.
When Jesus sent the disciples out on their mission, He made them into shepherds themselves, looking for the lost sheep and helping them to return home. Jesus then refreshed the shepherds so that they could participate in providing “green pastures” through the Multiplication. Jesus “appointed” these shepherds over His flock precisely as Jeremiah prophesied, so that we “need no longer fear and tremble.”
Jesus shepherds the shepherds, as well as all of us. He appointed them to act in His stead after the end of His mission on Earth. In turn, they all found lost sheep to be gathered into His flock, into His church, as Paul did in a number of cities. As he wrote to the Ephesians, “through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father,” who promised that all who desire green pastures and rest will be gathered to Him. They continue that mission to this day.
That is why the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is so enduring. It brings not just hope, but comfort and an end to fear. Even those who have been led astray can still find their way home, as the Shepherd of shepherds will keep calling us all back home.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.