"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: "It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings," says the Lord.
"Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing," says the Lord.
"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: 'The Lord is our righteousness.'"
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
In many areas of life there is a crisis of authority. The simple fact of holding a leadership position no longer ensures loyalty and unquestioning obedience today. The ideal leader is one who can win respect and generate trust, one with a clear sense of responsibility, who can get things done while respecting people's dignity and feelings. Shepherds, in to today's readings, are people of integrity who care for others (Jeremiah); people who help us follow the right path (Psalm), and show compassion toward others in their weakness (Gospel).
Some might think of the shepherd image as applying only to bishops— the official "pastors" in succession to the apostles, or to the local pastors in the parish —but in fact the shepherd role at one level or another, applies to all kinds of leadership. We are invited today by God's word to examine what our own leadership is like.
The shepherds condemned by Jeremiah were the leaders who neglected their responsibilities and let abuses thrive. His message today might be to political figures, ministers and government officials at all levels, who have the task of keeping public order, defending the rights of citizens and promoting fairness for all, insofar as possible. The shepherd image suggests that authority is not mainly the power to impose rules. The shepherding role is one of service more than dominion. Its goal is to set a good direction and enable a community to live together in peace, where each individual has dignity and an equal chance of personal fulfilment.
While the term shepherd rightly applies to spiritual leaders, prelates can sometimes push the image too far, seeming to treat their people more like sheep to be driven than as intelligent human beings to be persuaded. In today's world, the "Father knows best" attitude is not well received. As pope Francis so effectively points out, our clergy cannot rule by formal decree but must try to win minds and hearts, and communicate an inspiring vision, suited to our times. They must trust the maturity of their people, and promote a sense of owning the Church we belong to.
Besides the official leaders of Church and State, many others must offer pastoral leadership at a local and domestic level. Parents and teachers are the most obvious examples of this. In practice it is they who help to develop a child's character, laying the foundations for growth into adult maturity. They pass on values by which young people can live, and foster qualities that can grow over the years. For this they need the sensitivity and compassion shown by Jesus in today's Gospel. "He had compassion for them and began to teach them many things."
We are very much in the middle of holiday time. We all need a break from our routine, whatever that routine might be. Most of the time we go on holidays with somebody, or we go away to stay with somebody. Most of us like to be with others when we are away from our routine. In the gospel we find Jesus taking his disciples away together for a period of rest and quiet. They have had a busy time and were full of all they had done and taught and wanted to share it all with Jesus. He suggests a change of pace and of location, to take them away to a quiet place, where they could rest. This was to be a time of reflection in the company of Jesus, a time when they did nothing except be present to each other and to the Lord.
In our own faith life we all need such desert moments, times when we try to be present to the Lord and to each other. We have a prayer group in the parish that meets on a Mon. night; it is a desert moment, a short period of about 30 minutes when people sit in silence having listened to a short talk. We have another prayer group that meets on a Tue. evening, when a group of people gather around the gospel for the following Sunday, and listen to it in silence for about thirty minutes and then share a little on how it has spoken to them. These are times when people are present to the Lord and to each other in a more intense way than is usually the case. They are little desert moments that people can share together, times when we can come away to rest for a while in the Lord's presence and in the presence of other believers. Our church here is open every day until about 6.00 pm. Our church is that sort of desert space in the middle of our community. It is a place to which people can come away and rest for a while, in the words of the gospel. The silence can be an opportunity to share with the Lord what has been going on in our lives, just as in the gospel the disciples shared with Jesus all they had been doing and teaching. Other people can have that desert moment by going for a walk. As we walk we can become aware of the Lord and his presence to us, and we can become more aware of people in our lives, even though we may be walking alone. However we do it, as believers, as followers of the Lord, we all need to come away to some lonely place all by ourselves and rest for a while so that as to allow the Lord to be in a deeper communion with us.
If the first part of the gospel proclaims that value of coming away from our everyday cares, in order to be present to the Lord, the second part proclaims another value. The lonely place suddenly became a crowded place, even before Jesus and his disciples had reached the place. Jesus and his disciples stepped out of the boat not into quietness and peace but into human need and demand. We are all familiar with that kind of experience. We plan something and it doesn't work out. We go somewhere expecting something and the opposite transpires. We want to be alone and we are inundated with people. Jesus and his disciples experienced a major interruption to what they were intending. Interruptions are part of all our lives, and as one writer put it, God is often to be found in the interruptions. Jesus responded to the interruption by become completely present to it. He did not try to avoid the crowd or to send them away; he became fully present to them. In the words of the gospel, 'he took pity on them', 'he had compassion for them.' That is very much at the heart of our own calling as the Lord's followers, to be present to others, even when they turn up unexpectedly and interrupt what we had carefully planned. It is so easy to get worked up and irritated when something happens that is not part of the script we had in our head. We can be so fixed on that script that we can look on people as nuisances instead of being present to them with the compassion of Jesus. Jesus had the habit of spending time alone with God; it was those times of presence to God in prayer that enabled him to be present to others, no matter who they were or how they turned up. Our own coming away to be with the Lord will help us too to be present to those who come into our lives. Our contemplative moments, our desert times, help us to be contemplative, attentive, in our way of relating to those who cross our path in life.