I don’t know how you feel about being compared to sheep without a shepherd, but I have to tell you, I’m not all that flattered by it! Yet there’s some painful truth to that statement, and some rather beautiful truth as well. Because we do need leaders, those who will walk before us to show us the right way in the world, and even the right way to the world yet to come. I don’t think the problem is a lack of shepherds. There are many voices out there from which to choose. The problem is, which voices are trustworthy? Who do we listen to; who do we follow?
Many people prefer to listen to nobody. They want to do their own thing, make their own way, to be independent, free spirits. Our American culture tends to herald those folks and applaud their pioneer spirit. But the problem with that philosophy is that it only goes so far. At some point the freest spirits out there need to look at other free spirits and independent thinkers so that they can fashion their way of life. Nobody has ever made their way through life before, and the only way any of us can do it is to look to someone else. So even the most independent of us has to get his or her ideas from someone else. While they may prefer to listen to nobody, they do in fact listen to somebody, and then we’re back at the question we started with: who do we listen to?
Jeremiah prophesies woe to the false prophets:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…
Jeremiah’s problem is with the leaders of the people, the monarchy. Not only have they neglected the people of God – the people they were supposedly chosen to serve – but they have also misled them, causing them to be scattered into Exile. Since they could not be counted on to lead people to God, then God himself would be the one to remedy the situation. God would punish these leaders, and gather up his lost children under the leadership of the one true shepherd.
Would that the false prophets had disappeared after Jeremiah’s prophecy. Unfortunately, I think, we still have plenty around today, and we have to take care to discern them in our midst. So many will flock to the latest self-help book or program, or will model their life and philosophy after the likes of Oprah, Dr. Phil or – God help us – Martha Stewart. And as interesting as they may be, we must be very careful not to swallow their philosophies whole and entire. Because their concern is not that you would have eternal life; their concern is that you would watch their shows and buy from their advertisers. I’m not trying to tell you not to watch their television shows … well, that’s not entirely true, maybe I am. What I do want you to hear though is that these folks are not the true shepherds that Jeremiah foretells. If you want a voice to lead you in life, you’re going to have to look somewhere else.
Thankfully, God has made good on his promise to send a true shepherd, and that would be Jesus Christ. This Jesus who sent his apostles out on mission in last week’s Gospel, now gathers them together and invites them to take time away. But, as so often happens in Mark’s Gospel, this time away is interrupted by pastoral need. Before they ever reach the deserted, out-of-the-way place Jesus called them to, the people are there looking for them. Maybe they were the recipients of the Apostles’ ministry as they were sent out two-by-two last week. Or maybe they have just heard the amazing news about the things Jesus did – or maybe a little of both. Whatever the case, they came hungering for more, and Jesus takes pity on them.
This word “pity” has many negative connotations in our culture. Pity reeks of insincerity or superiority or condescension, and when we hear that word or use it, I think we kind of recoil a bit. But that’s not what is happening here when Jesus pities the crowds. The Greek word that we translate “pity” here is splanchnizomai. Now I’m not a Greek scholar, so there are two reasons I bring this up. First is that I like to say splanchnizomai – it’s kind of fun, and I know you’ll all be using it at your next cocktail party. But my second – and more serious – reason is that splanchnizomai is an example of onomatopoeia: it sounds like what it is. It has kind of a deep, guttural sound, and that’s kind of what it means. Splanchnizomai is a kind of pity that causes a reaction deep inside; it’s a strong concern that cannot help but translate into action. It’s a kind of pity that has none of the superiority, insincerity or condescension we hear in our word; it’s a pity that evolves into care and blessing. It’s such a strong term that Mark only uses it in his Gospel to refer to Jesus, or coming from the mouth of Jesus.
This reaction of care and blessing answers the question of who exactly is the true shepherd. We cannot possibly miss it from today’s Scripture readings. If the monarchy of Jeremiah’s time had abandoned and misled the people, then Jesus in his time was all about bringing people back together and leading them to the Father. In another place, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, and the only way to the Father. He is the shepherd that the people have been longing for, all the way back to Jeremiah’s day and before.
Back in our own day, we have to come to see Jesus as our true shepherd also. We too, are like sheep without a shepherd at times. We have all sorts of trials in our lives. We struggle with finding the right spouse for marriage. We debate the best ways to raise our children. We agonize over the best neighborhoods in which to live and the choice of a school in which to educate our children. We struggle with the illness or death of those we love. We have problems at work, or lose a job. Life can often be uncertain at best, and we need direction to follow the right way. The good news is that Jesus has splanchnizomai for us too. He longs to gather us up, to teach us “many things,” and to lead us home to the Father. That’s the way it was always supposed to work in the first place.
The problem is that we are not exactly like sheep, are we? We have our own wills and we tend often to ignore the voice that’s leading us in the right direction. It’s long past time that we all followed Jesus to a deserted, out-of-the-way place and put our complete trust in his love and guidance. We might not be able to take a week-long retreat or find a desert in which to come to Jesus. But we can come here to Church, maybe more than just on Saturday or Sunday. We have available the great gift of daily Mass, and a church building that is open early in the morning until late in the evening. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help us to come back to Jesus and to receive the Church’s direction in our troubles. We have the Blessed Sacrament in our Tabernacle in the Chapel where we can pray and actually be in the physical presence of our Lord. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this parish church is our out-of-the-way place. This is the place where we can steal away even for just a few minutes in our hectic day and be one with the Lord. And even if we cannot come to church on a given day, maybe we can find the space in our homes to close the door and be alone with Jesus for a few minutes.
The important piece is that Jesus is our true shepherd. He is the only voice that has the splanchnizomai to lead us in the right direction, which is home to the Father. We must hear this and turn to Christ our shepherd with the words of the psalmist today: “My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.”