• Jer 23:1-6
• Psa 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
• Eph 2:13-18
• Mk 6:30-34
Today’s Gospel is the sort of short reading that can easily be overlooked, because of its length and because it marks a swift transition between the sending of the twelve “out two by two” (Mk 6:7-13) and the dramatic account of the feeding of the five thousand (Mk 6:30-43). There is also the lengthy and moving story of the murder of John the Baptist (vs. 14-29), which provides a palpable sense of the dangers facing Jesus and his followers.
Yet these five verses (30-34) are filled with important information about the relationship between the apostles and Jesus, as well as between Jesus and the people, described here as “the vast crowd”. Notably, this is the only place in Mark’s Gospel in which the twelve are identified as “the apostles”. An apostle (“apostolos”, in Greek) is one who is sent forth by someone with authority in order to be a representative or ambassador for that particular person. In the New Testament, it refers to a distinctive office instituted by Jesus.
The apostles were men chosen by Jesus, and those men were direct witnesses to the person and power of their Lord. And so it is fitting they are not identified as such witnesses until after they had, in fact, spent time witnessing by preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.
The apostles, having been given authority by Jesus, gathered together with him to report “all they had done and taught.” They had a responsibility to answer directly to Christ. Likewise, as bishops they would continue to be accountable to Christ and to the Petrine office established upon Peter the Rock (Matt 16:16-20), a responsibility placed upon each and every bishop throughout the history of the Church.
This is directly connected to Jesus being the Good Shepherd, whose heart is moved with pity for the vast crowds that followed him. The relationship between sheep and shepherd is one mentioned often the Old Testament, sometimes referring to the relationship between the people and their leaders, and sometimes between the people and God. In Genesis, God is described as “the Shepherd” (Gen. 49:24); there are many references to the people of Israel as being sheep without a shepherd or master (1 Kng. 22:17; 2 Chr. 18:16). This theme is developed at length by many of the prophets, most notably Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
For example, Ezekiel 34 is a long condemnation of corrupt, sinful leaders—both religious and civil—who proved to be unworthy shepherds. Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a strong condemnation of those who failed to protect and care for the people: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture … You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”
Jeremiah prophesied of a coming day when God would gather “a remnant” of his flock, appointing good and holy men “who will “shepherd them.” The twelve apostles were the beginning of that flock. Notice that after they had performed the difficult work of preaching and witnessing, Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” This rest was not only physical rest, but spiritual restoration. While the desert and wilderness could be a place of testing and trial, it was also a place of solitude and revival when accompanied by God (cf. Ex 33:14; Heb 4:9-11).
Each of us—whether you are a bishop, priest, religious, or lay person—needs rest from the cares of the world and time spent in quiet solitude with God. “The mind of man is incapable of perceiving the truth clearly,” wrote St. Basil the Great, “if it is distracted by innumerable worldly cares.”
In Christ, as the Apostle Paul teaches, lasting peace is realized and granted. As King David expressed so beautifully: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” The good and divine shepherd, Jesus Christ, guides us, protects us, feeds us, and gives us peace.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the July 22, 2012 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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