A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for Sunday, July 22, 2012, the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time | Carl E. Olson
• Jer 23:1-6
• Ps 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
• Eph 2:13-18
• Mk 6:30-34
The Bible refers to many strange and exotic creatures, including dragons, snakes, talking donkeys, and demon-possessed swine. But the most widely discussed and depicted animal in all of Scripture is ordinary, meek, and not altogether bright. Sheep are easily the most-mentioned animals in the Old and New Testaments, with some 400 literal and metaphorical references, in addition to about a hundred references to shepherds.
Along with goats, sheep were essential to the lifestyle—both nomadic and agrarian—of the Hebrews, who relied heavily on the wool, milk, and meat of the sheep. That vital relationship between sheep and shepherd was the basis for figurative language describing a familial and spiritual relationship, sometimes between the people and their leaders, and sometimes between the people and God. The Pentateuch describes God as “the Shepherd” (Gen. 49:24), and expresses the need of the “congregation of the Lord” to have an appointed leader so they “may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (Num. 27:16-17). There are several references to sheep who have no shepherd or master (1 Kng. 22:17; 2 Chr. 18:16), a theme developed at length by several of the prophets, especially Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
Ezekiel 34 is the longest example of a condemnation of bad shepherds—religious and civil leaders who have failed the people precisely because they have not obeyed the commandments of God. Today’s reading from Jeremiah is another example of a prophetic denunciation of those who “mislead and scatter the flock” of God’s pasture, failing to care for and protect the people.
Jeremiah speaks of a day when God will gather “a remnant” of his flock and appoint shepherds “who will “shepherd them.” This is a prelude to a prophecy about the Messiah—the righteous shoot, or offspring, of David—who will reign, govern, and bring salvation. The rule of the Messiah is a sacred kingship bringing to realization the blessings of the covenant and establishing justice and righteousness. This, of course, is a reference to Jesus Christ, who has, Paul writes in today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians, reconciled man to God through the Cross and established peace.
This reconciliation through Christ’s flesh, death, and resurrection is concretely realized within the Church. Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, draws deeply from Scripture in describing this truth:
The Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds; are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd and the Prince of the shepherds, who gave His life for the sheep” (par. 6).
Paul explained to readers in Ephesus that Christ came and preached peace so both Jews and Gentiles could have access through him “in one Spirit to the Father.” All men are called to the sheepfold, the household of God, and invited to enter. Some, sadly, will turn away, preferring false freedom over eternal life.
Today’s Gospel depicts the moment between the disciples returning from preaching repentance door to door and the feeding of the five thousand (Mk. 6:35-44). Having invited those who were his disciples to rest a while, Jesus soon thereafter saw the great crowd who were following him, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Here, at last, was a shepherd who truly loves his people!
Each man needs a shepherd, for he is incapable of fulfilling the deepest longings of his soul and heart. As St. Augustine acknowledged in his Confessions, “our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Only the Lord, King David wrote in perhaps his most famous psalm, can lead us by restful waters and refresh our souls. “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” The divine shepherd guides us, protects us, and feeds us with his body and blood, soul and divinity. He fills our deepest desire: to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the July 19, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)