“Woe to the shepherds who misguide and scatter my flock!” Thus spoke Jeremiah of the religious leaders around the year 600 BC Now, it is not necessary to be part of the clergy or a politician to deceive and disperse. According to an NPR report in May, only 12 people could take credit for the majority of the frightening misinformation that was then published about COVID-19 vaccinations.
Today, all one needs to launch a career as a deceptive shepherd are dexterous social media skills and unscrupulous intentions. But as Jeremiah testifies, it was always so.
Jeremiah and Jesus both mingled with many false prophets and selfish leaders who appreciated the intimidating pulpits. In the Middle Ages, deceptive troubadours could promulgate scandal and defamation via popular arias. After the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention made it possible for anyone who could fund it to try and influence public opinion by publishing their thoughts and opinions. Radio, television and the Internet bring it to our days in a more democratized and often unscrupulous way.
Obviously, we could choose any century and look at our brothers and sisters and perceive them as Jesus did: as people in need of good shepherds. This leads to a crucial question: how are we going to determine who among all the competitors for attention are the good shepherds? Today’s Psalm offers some advice.
Psalm 23 begins: “The Lord is my Shepherd. Immediately he gives us some specific pointers on how to recognize a good Shepherd. First of all, it indicates that good shepherds lead us to green pastures and restful waters – places that offer the rare combination of bountiful possibilities and genuine peace. These are places where people believe that God’s world can provide generous abundance for everyone.
At the same time, our psalmist admits that the goodness and protection of God does not ensure the absence of conflict. The Psalm reminds us that the straight path often winds through dark valleys, but our Divine Shepherd remains with us, giving us the courage to face evil. (Like a tyrant whose bluff is called, evil crumbles into cowardice in the face of transparent faith.)
Halfway through our psalm, the image changes; the shepherd / lord becomes a servant or hostess. (What good hostess does not serve as a servant, fortunately listening to her hosts?)
In the pictures in this part of the Psalm, God sets us a lavish table, the kind of grand and generous feast that begs to be enjoyed by a crowd of revelers. Those who participate in the largesse of this table are also anointed, first as guests, then as people charged with marking out the “right path”, the path that welcomes others in the scenes already described in this song of joy.
Today’s short extract from the Gospel is Mark’s prelude to the story of the miraculous sharing of bread. Placed here in our liturgical calendar, it focuses on how Jesus’ awareness of people’s needs led him to respond as a Good Shepherd who would reveal God’s generous abundance.
When we listen to this in conjunction with Jeremiah’s message and Psalm 23, we are brought to discern how we are called to meet the great needs of our time.
There is no doubt that one of the greatest needs of our time is to heal the divisions that mark our church and the world. Pope Francis warns us that “unless we reclaim the common passion to create community … our energy and resources …Fratelli Tutti, 36).
In last week’s liturgy we were warned that we either come together with Christ or we disperse. This week’s scriptures tell us that as disciples of Christ the Good Shepherd we must remember that the invitation to rest by the waters of restful waters is for refreshment, not for permanent residence. We are invited to the banquet that nourishes and anoints us to spread the goodness and kindness that we have learned.
Mark did not set out to write a biography of Jesus, but an announcement of the good news that could change the course of our lives. Mark invites us to look at our world as Jesus looked at his: to feel the needs of our people and respond to them in any way possible.
Given the divided state of our church, our country, and the world, we cannot claim to be disciples of the Good Shepherd unless we continue his work of keeping the scattered flocks of which we are a part.
Like the psalmist, we are anointed to be troubadours who open the hearts, minds and eyes of others to see the gracious abundance of God and believe that they have nothing to fear from one another.