The readings for the sixteenth Sunday in ordinary time included a paired passage from the prophet Jeremiah and the Gospel of Mark. Jeremiah labors as a prophet in Jerusalem, just before the fall of the city to Babylon in 587 BCE. From Jeremiah’s writings we get the term jeremiad, which is a tirade against real or perceived injustice.
Today’s first reading is something of a jeremiad. The prophet foretells:
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.
Jeremiah predicts punishment for the leaders of Judah who fail to care for their own people – their flock. Speaking of which, where do these images (flock/shepherd) come from? In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel anoints the young boy David, ruddy in appearance, as the future king of Israel. David is a shepherd boy, one who cares for his flock. In fact, it was during his days as a shepherd that David learned to use a sling with such dexterity – the same weapon used to slay Goliath, enemy of the Israelites.
While David is both a good shepherd and a good king, the king of Judah during Jeremiah’s time, is not. Zedekiah (598-587 BCE) is a puppet, who is made king by the Babylonians. Contrary to God’s counsel, Zedekiah schemes to force the Babylonians out of Jerusalem. God does not approve of Zedekiah allying with a long-standing enemy of the Israelites, Egypt. Zedekiah’s confidence in his own judgment brings ruin to Jerusalem, as the Babylonians learn of the failed plot, and invade the city. The King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, takes thousands of Judean hostages, and then razes Jerusalem to the ground.
Time to Rest
In Mark’s Gospel we have a brief where Jesus proposes to his twelve that they retreat to the wilderness to rest. This is the fourth time (Mk 1:12; 1:35; 1:45) in Mark’s gospel that we are told that Jesus and/or his disciples try to rest or go into the wilderness for a respite.
In chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, this pattern where Christ retreats to pray, and then is called upon to perform mighty works, repeats itself three times – as if to suggest that prayer and retreat are necessary for effective Christian ministry. In Mark 1:35, Jesus sought a quiet place,and there he prayed. Here Jesus invites the apostles to do the same; come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while. Jesus tries to establish a precedent for contemplative prayer in between the activity of ministry. Ministry isn’t all about activity and work. A minister needs to time to speak to God, in solitude, as well.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
When Jesus retires with the Apostles to a quiet place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they soon find that they have visitors. The Evangelist tells us that he was moved with pity, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This quote is Matthean (9:36). Parenthetically, the image of Christ the shepherd is present in Mark, Matthew and John, but it is not to be found in Luke! Christ the shepherd is also not a Pauline image, though it is mentioned in Hebrews and 1 Peter.
The Matthean phrase sheep without a shepherd hearkens back to the prophets of Israel, whom Matthew (and Mark, who relies upon Matthew) quotes liberally. Ezekiel uses this analogy. Consider Ezekiel 34:8,
My sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.
By quoting the prophet Ezekiel, Matthew and Mark are implying that Jesus is the shepherd being sought by the people. This is no coincidence, since the prophet Ezekiel predicts (34:15) that a time will come when God himself will shepherd his sheep. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus abandons the original plans to rest a while with the apostles, and decides to teach the crowd many things. Note the implied theological counterpoint to Ezekiel 34, where the shepherds have not fed my sheep. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the Apostles do the opposite: they interrupt their own rest to shepherd the flock.
The use of the phrase sheep without a shepherd is used in a similar context in Matthew, where Jesus then observes that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. This passage in Mark, and the parallel passage in Matthew, tell us that the demands of the flock are great, and that Jesus and the Apostles barely have time to rest. Such is the reality of ministry. In following Christ, his followers implicitly tell us that Christ is indeed a good shepherd in much the same way that David did in the Book of Samuel, and as a fulfillment of the prophecy made by Jeremiah.