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16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Modern

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Lectionary 107

Sometimes an idea or concept from the scripture readings comes across very clearly in the Lectionary, and that is certainly the case this Sunday. The image of a shepherd runs through the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, the responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel as well. The shepherd is probably one of the most common biblical images, being known even to people with only a passing familiarity with the Bible. In John’s Gospel Jesus famously calls himself the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23, which we hear today and which is the most popular of all the Psalms, begins with the words “the Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1).

Reflecting on this peaceful image, it is important to recall in the first place that the image of a shepherd was used so often in the Bible because practically everyone in the ancient near east encountered shepherds on a regular basis, and because shepherds developed remarkably close bonds with their sheep, to the point where sheep distinguished between the voice of their shepherd and that of another, such as a thief (see John 10:2-5). The shepherd thus became a powerful biblical symbol representing the Lord, who guided the whole nation of Israel and sought their best even though they often rebelled against their shepherd (see Ps 80).

The Lord was a faithful shepherd for his people, but the earthly kings and rulers who reigned over Israel were not, as we clearly hear today: “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” (Jer 26:2). Jeremiah not only announces the Lord’s judgement against the “shepherds” of Israel, he also provides a note of great hope, when, speaking in the name of God, he says: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them and bring them back to their folds; there they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear or be terrified; none shall be missing” (Jer 26:3-4).

The prophet Jeremiah’s inspired words would be partially fulfilled when the people of Israel were led from their exile in Babylon back to their homeland by leaders who were truly righteous and devoted to the Lord. The full meaning of his prophecy would not be seen however, until the time of Jesus himself, more than five centuries after the exile, when he revealed himself to be the true and definitive shepherd of Israel and of all the nations.

We see evidence of that in today’s Gospel reading: Jesus is greeted by a huge crowd—more than five thousand people—and he sees that they were downtrodden spiritually and physically, “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). He responds by giving them two things that a good shepherd provides to his sheep: instruction and sustenance. Just as a shepherd carefully guides his sheep so as to avoid danger, so too Jesus turned to the crowd and “began to teach them many things” that they might avoid spiritual danger and come to find eternal life in him (Mark 6:34). A shepherd also provides grazing for his sheep, and Jesus provides a miraculous abundance of food for the crowd, beginning with just five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:35-44).

As we recall the image of the shepherd found so often in the Bible, let us be grateful that in Jesus we have found the one true “shepherd and guardian of our souls” (1 Pet 2:25).

Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.

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