Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”…Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for the vast crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mark 6, 30-34

Today’s first reading, responsorial psalm and gospel prompt me to ask myself who, in actual practice, do I see as the shepherds to guide me in my life’s journey. On whom and on what do I rely for guidance, especially when the going is tough.

From time to time, we’ve all probably observed pushy parents stepping in to pressurise their children in all kinds of activities. We’ve seen them on the sidelines at school and club sporting fixtures, urging their children to shine at hockey or football, at sprinting or gymnastics. And when the child does not measure up to expectations, he or she becomes the target of parental advice or, far worse, belittling criticism. There are even parents who lower themselves to blame the referee or umpire for their children’s failure to win. Pushy parents are also to be found exhorting their children to great academic heights, or success in musical and stage performance. It’s as though their child’s success or failure reflects on their success or failure as parents. Whether we are parents, coaches, personal trainers or tutors, we can all find ourselves trapped into searching for affirmation and approval arising from the success of those we have been asked to guide. It’s as though our credibility depends on their success.

We’ve all been around long enough to see that there are people whose lives are driven by a desire for commercial success. Their shepherd is to be found in the daily stock-market report. Their success is measured by the magnitude of their bank account. If the source of our guidance comes from the stock exchange or the approval of neighbours and acquaintances, we can be sure that we are numbered among those whom Jesus saw as shepherdless in today’s gospel reading. Still others are driven by the desire to climb the social ladder. The measure of their success is whether or not their picture found its way to the social pages of the local newspaper or whether they have made it to the bound volume of Who’s Who. They reveal their desire to be in the ranks of “Who wants to be who” by their obsession with name-dropping and recounting all their brushes with fame. Their shepherd is to be found among those who attribute popularity ratings.

From the pages of Mark’s Gospel, we can conclude that God invites us to see Jesus as the only shepherd who can guide us to true peace and contentment in our lives. If our lives are to be centred on the things of God, if we are to find true freedom, if we are to live free of the fear of failure, we will have to look to Jesus as our true guide and reliable shepherd.

Today’s gospel reading opens with an illustration of Jesus’ sensitivity to the needs of his disciples. Doctors who are required to engage in a period of internship before they are fully accredited, student teachers and nurses who are sent to try their hand at the practicalities of teaching and nursing, apprentices who are expected to learn a trade under the supervision of a qualified practitioner all know how much nervous energy is expended in their early days of supervised practice.

Today’s gospel tells of how the disciples have just returned from their first experience of practice teaching and preaching. Jesus, recognising that they must have been physically and mentally exhausted, suggests they take the opportunity for some R & R and debriefing: “Let’s go off by ourselves to some place where we’ll be alone and you can rest a while” (Mark 6, 31). But his best-laid plans come to nothing. The crowd, many of whom may not have been able to afford space for R and R, anticipate Jesus’ movements, and succeed to demonstrating to the disciples that need has no timetable and compassion has no schedule. People in need will make demands on our time and generosity at the most inconvenient times. Need, like compassion, has no schedule.

While we in this day and age may not be comfortable with the imagery of God or Jesus as shepherd, we need to remember that Jesus was shaped by his Jewish culture and tradition. He was familiar with the Jewish scriptures. It was not by accident that he described the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd”. He would have been familiar with Moses’ request to God to appoint a leader for the people “who will lead them out and bring them in,…so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers, 27, 17). He would have known Isaiah’s reference to the people of Israel, exiled in Babylon, as: “Like a hunted gazelle, like sheep without a shepherd, each will return to his own people, each will flee to his native land” (Isaiah 13, 14), and the words of Micaiah recorded in the Book of Chronicles: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and God said: ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” (2 Chr. 18, 16).

In reaching out to the crowd that had successfully disrupted his plans, Jesus demonstrated what compassionate leadership looks like. In the process, he taught the disciples and us how to be sensitive to the needs of others, how to empathise with them in their struggles and how to reach out to them in their need.