Today’s Readings: Jer. 23:1-6; Ps. 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Eph. 2: 13-18; Mk. 6: 30-34
The theme for today’s Liturgy of the Word is leadership political and spiritual. The image uniting both is shepherding. For me that pastoral metaphor brings to mind characteristics of presence, watchfulness, protection, and overriding concern for the sheep of the flock. I’m confident you’d agree that in both government and church those qualities are in extremely short supply.
Think about political “leaders” announcing (literally) the day after the election of our nation’s first African American President, “I want that man to fail.” (Didn’t that mean they want our country to fail?) Think about clergy from our own faith community (literally) preying on young boys, ruining them for life, and then presuming to speak authoritatively to women and the rest of us about sexuality. That’s failed leadership.
The first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah laments the absence of political and spiritual leaders who were watchful, protective and caring in his time too. Instead of uniting people, and drawing them together, the would-be leaders of Jeremiah’s day (all men) were dividing and scattering them as effectively as our own. Through Jeremiah God promises to appoint new leadership to reverse that syndrome.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark specifically addresses that promised reversal. It focuses on Jesus’ own practice of spiritual shepherding. Jesus fulfills the promise of Jeremiah by drawing his apprentice shepherds from an entirely new class of people – not from the tribe of Levi and its inherited priesthood, not from the royal palace, but from the marginalized and decidedly unroyal and unpriestly in the traditional sense. Jesus chooses illiterate fishermen, day-laborers, and possibly real working shepherds. By all accounts women also prominently filled shepherding roles in the early church.
Finally, the responsorial psalm and Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Ephesus remind us of the reason for shepherds at all – not the preservation of tradition, much less of patriarchy. Rather, shepherds are there to embody compassion. They exist for the welfare of the sheep. Leaders are there to foster the emergence (in Paul’s words) of a new kind of person – not over-worked, but rested, living in pleasant surroundings, without fear, lacking nothing, with plenty to eat and drink. In a word shepherds are there for the sake of righteousness, justice, and compassion.
No doubt Jesus had that kind of respite in mind for his tired apostles when he invited them to “rest a while.”After all they were his sheep, and he their shepherd. His invitation reflects compassion for his friends.
But there was to be no rest. The “sheep” in the wider sense were so starved for the compassionate guidance unavailable to them either in court or at the Temple. So in droves they stalked Jesus and his friends even to their desert retreat. All of that evoked Jesus’ own compassion. The text literally says “his guts churned” when he saw the directionless people; they were so forlorn. So that was the end of any thoughts of “R&R” for Jesus and the others. (Buddhists speak of “The Compassionate Buddha. Mark reminds us here of “The Compassionate Jesus.”)
All of this highlights the defining characteristic of the type of leadership, the type of “shepherding” Jesus prized and practiced. It was defined by putting the needs of others first, even when that meant he himself would be deprived of the rest he deserved.
What a practical criterion for judging the leadership of our politicians, popes, bishops and priests! What a powerful criterion for judging our own leadership in our families, communities and places of work.
Who are the best leaders you know (political and/or spiritual) in terms of putting the needs of others first? When have you or persons close to you exercised leadership in those terms? Do our daily lives, our political lives show evidence of following the Compassionate Jesus? Why does our culture consider having compassion (a “bleeding heart”) a negative quality? (Discussion follows.)