• Jer 23:1-6
• Psa 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
• Eph 2:13-18
• Mk 6:30-34
In an April 2013 homily given at Mass at which several priests were ordained, Pope Francis exhorted those men to pursue unity with Christ so that unity within the Church will grow:
Finally, dear sons, exercising for your part the office of Christ, Head and Shepherd, while united with the Bishop and subject to him, strive to bring the faithful together into one family, so that you may lead them to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
A year later, speaking to another group of men being ordained as priests, the Holy Father said:
The Good Shepherd enters through the door, and the doors of mercy are the wounds of the Lord: if you do not enter into your ministry through the Lord’s wounds, you will not be good shepherds.
A good shepherd does several things well: he tends to his sheep, feeding and watching over them; he defends the sheep from danger; he leads the sheep to good pastures and water. Most importantly, he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sheep, putting them ahead of his own comfort and safety. We see this demonstrated in various ways by several famous shepherds in Scripture: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Amos, and the young David. And, of course, those shepherds didn’t just care for sheep but for people: families, tribes, nations, and empires.
Sheep and shepherds are mentioned many times the Old Testament, often in reference to those significant relationships between the people and their leaders, and sometimes to the relationship between the people and God. In Genesis, for instance, God is called “the Shepherd” (Gen. 49:24); on the negative side, there are several places where the Israelites are described as sheep without a shepherd or master (1 Kng. 22:17; 2 Chr. 18:16). This theme is taken up by many of the prophets, especially Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a harsh condemnation of those who do not really 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.” Ezekiel 34 contains equally withering words in a lengthy condemnation of corrupt and sinful leaders—both religious and political—who proved to be unworthy shepherds.
Jeremiah pointed to a coming time 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. But they had to learn from the Good Shepherd how to withstand the temptations and challenges that come with being shepherds. After the apostles had spent time 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 in nature, but deeply spiritual as well. Although the wilderness was often a place of testing and trial, it was a place of respite and revival when accompanied by God (cf. Ex 33:14; Heb 4:9-11).
In Christ, as the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Ephesus, lasting peace will be realized and granted between the Jews and Gentiles. This peace is not the mere absence of conflict but a real and lasting reconciliation. And that relationship is found only in the presence of God. As King David expressed so beautifully in his most famous Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. … He guides me in right path for his name’s sake.”
And so the good and divine shepherd, Jesus Christ, guides, protects, and feeds us. And gives us peace. But this is only possible because of his work of reconciliation “through the cross”. Only by dying does the shepherd fulfill his ultimate work of mercy, love, and reconciliation.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in a slightly different form in the July 8, 2018 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)