Our First Reading today highlights the inadequacies of political and religious leaders in the land of Judah. The kings and priests, the supposed shepherds of the people, were too self-centred and failed in their duty of communicating God’s love and compassion to the people. They plundered the land and scandalized the very people they were called to serve and protect. This is why the prophet Jeremiah is saying to them:”You have scattered my flock, you have driven them away and have not taken care of them. Right, I shall take care of you for your misdeeds” (Jer. 23:2).
The corruption of religious leaders did not start in Jeremiah’s time. In the First Book of Samuel, we see the wantonness of the sons of the High Priest Eli. Hophni and Phinehas feared neither God nor man and did not seem to understand the duties of a priest. Whenever the meat from a sacrificial animal was cooking, these men would send their servants with a three-pronged fork which was thrust into the cooking vessel. Whatever the fork brought up went to them. In addition, they took sexual advantage of the women who worked as maids in the Tent of Meeting. These evil shepherds feasted on the very sheep they were meant to protect. Their wickedness and unrestrained appetite for carnal pleasure cost them and their nation very dearly as Israel lost a crucial battle to the Philistines. Both men were killed, and the Ark of the Covenant was captured.
Back in the First Reading, the Lord rebukes the shepherds for the spiritual bankruptcy of the people. With the current king Zedekiah, the long line of kings going back to David was coming to an end. Due to his stubbornness, Zedekiah was captured, blinded, and taken into captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar who also destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the city walls. Nevertheless, the Lord promises not to abandon his people but to raise good shepherds “who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed” (Jer. 23:4).
In the Second Reading, St Paul underlines the graciousness of God’s plan to restore unity and harmony in the human family through the Blood of Christ, and to form a universal Church under the leadership of Christ Good Shepherd. This plan is in line with the promise made through the prophet Jeremiah that the Lord will gather remnants of his people from all the places that they are scattered (cf. Jer. 23:3).The Gospel passage highlights how a Christian can struggle to strike a balance between the demands of everyday work and his personal spiritual life. It is not hard for a priest, for example, to spend too much time doing parish work while neglecting his prayer – the very source of his missionary life.
Such a person finds himself consumed by the work of the Lord while neglecting the Lord of the work. On the other hand, one could hide under the guise of prayer to neglect his family or work commitments. However, our Lord Jesus knows the middle ground: how to be refreshed by God in order to have something to offer the people; and being able to bring the light to shine in people’s lives in order to draw them to the source of that light – God.
The disciples had just come back from a mission exhausted, and Jesus saw the need for them to take some time off to avoid fatigue. But what sounded like a great, practical idea was superseded by the urgency of the moment as a crowd pressed upon them. Jesus intended to take his disciples on a retreat, but the people would not let them. Their private space was invaded, and the much-needed rest was denied. Many people in this situation would be upset but not Jesus. He had compassion for the people because, “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36), and so he took time to teach them.
Jesus shows himself to be the model shepherd willing to lay down his life for his sheep. What about us? We all deserve our occasional breaks and vacations, but sometimes urgent situations might arise which force us to forfeit those times of rest. Consequently, we must be ready to make extra efforts while looking after those under our care. This is the kind of shepherd that the Lord is promising through Jeremiah – a shepherd after God’s own heart. It is the kind of shepherd portrayed in today’s Responsorial Psalm where God is the model shepherd who leads his people to restful water to revive their flagging spirits.
Meanwhile, today’s readings seem to be targeted at religious leaders, especially priests. This is true and the Church is not unaware of this. The Church fully understands the need to have priests formed in the mould of Christ. In 1992 Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (I will give you shepherds) which describes the formation of priests and their sanctification in the ministry as the most demanding and important task for the Church for the future evangelization of humanity. This document is a compulsory study for all those studying for the priesthood.
However, it is not only the clergy that are challenged today but also those in government, and those who are shepherds at such other important levels as parents and teachers, counsellors, and social workers. They are the ones who help to form the character of our young people, lay the foundation for their growth, and communicate the values by which people live. They also foster faith and commitment. Each one of us has some level of responsibility that requires leadership, and this must be based on the model of Christ, the One who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
So, as we welcome Christ in the Eucharist today, let us pray for the grace to become shepherds after God’s own heart. Amen!