Shepherds and their flocks are the subject of today’s scripture readings at mass, with the recurring theme of shepherds who have failed their flocks featuring prominently. Since Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, and since shepherd imagery often accompanies the writings of the Psalms and the prophets, it seems natural to use this term to describe God in his relations toward his people Israel and toward the Christian Church.
We begin with the prophet Jeremiah, who exercised his ministry in the sixth century before Christ at a time when Jerusalem and Judah were besieged by the Babylonians. Against false prophets and would-be leaders who promised the people peace and prosperity, Jeremiah uttered the hard words: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” He followed his words of warning with a promise from the Lord: “I will raise up shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear” (Jer 23:1, 4).
Many in Israel responded to Jeremiah’s preaching and turned back to the Lord as their one and only true shepherd, yet many others failed to do so. This pattern of infidelity to the Lord and limited contrition would continue for generations in Israel, as it does in our own culture and day. Even for those who consciously find strength and joy in their relationship with God, moments come when hardships arise which can shake one’s faith. At times like this one might think of the Psalm we pray together at mass today, acknowledging the Lord as our shepherd and saying in trust: “though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.” (Ps 23:4).
In ancient times as in modern ones we are subject to the cycle of our good intentions to be faithful disciples of the Lord being frustrated by our selfish tendencies which ultimately lead us into that “dark valley” of sin. Over the course of history God never tires of reconciling us to himself once more after we have drifted away, yet in the fullness of time God went beyond his covenant commitment to his people and did something which would break this cycle once and for all, even if its consequences still accompany us. In the person of Jesus Christ God would take on humanity with all its joys and sorrows—even suffering and death—in order to definitely redeem us from these things.
Before his encounter with death and his resurrection which followed, Jesus showed himself to be the perfect shepherd, or the “Good Shepherd” who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. Today’s Gospel reminds us of how often we need the grace and guidance of such a devoted shepherd, when we hear: “When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Confident in the goodness of our Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep, let us follow his invitation to: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). Then, refreshed in his peace and his strength, we may acknowledge the depth of our need for the Good Shepherd, taking account of the “dark valleys” into which we stumble, and then follow faithfully after him into the verdant pastures and restful waters to which he leads us—and the redemption which lies beyond.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Brother Placid Sellers, O.S.B.