The compassion of Jesus is heightened as he experiences the crowds of people coming to find him in the “deserted place.” He had gone to this place with the Twelve after they had returned from their first mission (last week’s gospel passage). The purpose was to be rejuvenated through prayer and time together with him and each other.
The people see them leaving on a boat. The hasten “on foot” to get to the place he is going before he arrives. Jesus’ response is one of understanding. He realizes they are like sheep without a shepherd. So he goes out to be with them and he “teaches them many things.”
The shepherd/sheep imagery is used at various times in the Sacred Scriptures to describe the relationship between God and his people. Sheep need a shepherd. The shepherd leads the sheep; without him they will wander aimlessly and can easily get separated one from the other. They also run the risk of getting lost and going into places where food is scarce or not available; likewise, water. The shepherd also protects the flock from dangerous animals like wolves. The shepherd’s role is to lead, guide, protect and nourish.
Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd,” is one of the most beloved of all the psalms. It describes the role of the Lord in leading his people with care and compassion. The worries and anxieties of the world are eased with his abiding presence with the flock. The peace of mind and heart that this brings is evident in the first line: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”
All that is needed for life, he provides. He is the rock of refuge and the source of courage — “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil for you are at my side, with your rod and staff that give me courage.” The psalm poetically captures the sense of relationship that exists between God and his people.
The Lord appoints leaders to represent him in the covenant with Israel, and later the church. Leaders who fail to shepherd in his image and his way are excoriated by the prophets and ultimately by Jesus himself. In the first reading for today’s liturgy, Jeremiah notes that some of the leaders in his day are failing in their role — they are leading the people away from rather than to the Lord, they are doing evil deeds and have failed to care for the flock.
The Lord, speaking through Jeremiah, promises a day when he will appoint good shepherds so that the people will no longer “fear and tremble.” He says that he himself 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.” The promised good shepherd is fulfilled in Jesus.
The past year and one-half has been a trying period for most of us, especially the months of “shut down.” During those days when many restrictions were placed on movement and activity, many people started to recognize the need for certain things that were usually present in our lives. Their absence made the need even more real. Things such as socialization, personal (non-technological) interaction with family and friends, the ability to engage in work (not only for financial security but for creative exercise), the need to gather for prayer, worship and the celebration of the sacraments, and so forth.
In trying times like these we also realize our need for a shepherd. One who can lead us through the darkness or desert to light. One who can shine a light in the darkness to lead us through to a better place. One who walks with us on the journey and shows us the way. One who counsels us on the right path. One who protects us from outside ourselves but also from within. The need for a shepherd in our lives is real; in troubling times, this need is keenly noticed.
The good news is that our shepherd is always with us. He is the Good Shepherd who has gone into the darkness and has come out. He took on human suffering in his passion. No plight of a human being is beyond his understanding. He leads us through difficult, trying or severe situations into the light of life, resurrection.
As we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we gather as his flock. When we hear the prayers proclaimed, we join our prayers to his. When we listen to the Scriptures, as both old and new, we hear him teach. When we receive his Body and Blood, we are fed and nourished by him. When we receive his grace, we are protected by him, fortified by him for doing good.
So as we gather today, we confidently acclaim: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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