You know, as a shepherd of souls, whenever I hear Jeremiah’s words, I am given more than just a little pause. These words quite properly give me pause to think about the ways that I have led people – is this the way God would want it done, or have I scattered the sheep and driven them away. It’s not a bad little examination of conscience for any of us, because in some ways we are all called to be leaders at one time or another in our lives. Maybe we are leading our families, or leading others in our business, or leading at school or other activities. We are all called upon to be good leaders when we’re in those positions, leaders who help others to know that they are special and loved and needed.
Today’s scriptures call us to look also at the people we have decided to follow as our leaders. And I don’t think there’s any shortage of those who would lead us. The problem for most of us is deciding which of the many voices out there we will choose to follow. I think in some ways that’s a big project of our lives, the focus of our growing up. Many of us would prefer to be “free spirits,” independent souls who don’t look to anyone for advice or instruction. And that’s interesting except for the fact that it only goes so far. None of us have ever waded through this life before, so we cannot claim to know how to do it right the first time out. At some point, we have to look to someone else and claim those ideas as our own, which, of course, they aren’t.
So again, we’re back to square one. Who are we going to follow, who will be our leader? Our society gives us so many options. We could pick “heroes” from the world of sports, or entertainment, and then eventually we find out their flaws and their worldview doesn’t really help us any. We might pick wealthy CEOs or leaders of industry, but then money doesn’t buy happiness, as we quite often see in their own lives. We may turn to self-help books or sites on the Internet, except that they very often make things seem way easier than they actually are. We may even turn to people on television like Oprah, Dr. Phil, or – God help us – Martha Stewart. But as wise as they may seem to be, they really don’t care about us personally. They are content if we tune them in, increase their ratings, and buy from their advertisers. They aren’t ever going to tell us anything their sponsors don’t want us to hear.
So we are pretty much in the same position as Jeremiah the prophet. He was chastising those who were supposed to be in charge of shepherding the people, namely the monarchy. The king and his court were responsible for the people, only time after time they proved that they were no more up to the challenge of being objective, compassionate shepherds than Martha Stewart is for us. The problem wasn’t, and isn’t, a lack of leaders, but a lack of leaders who really care about the people they are leading.
And so it is the Gospel, of course, that gives us the answer to our quest today. Jesus sees that the people are like “sheep without a shepherd” and he absolutely intends to fill that role for them. His reaction could have been one of irritation. Here his disciples had just returned from the missionary journey he sent them out on in last week’s Gospel, and he wants to have them come away to a quiet place, to rest, and debrief. But they don’t even have that opportunity. But seeing that they were lost without a shepherd to lead them, he isn’t irritated, instead he has pity on them.
Now let’s talk a bit about this word “pity.” I think that word has all kinds of negative connotations for us. Pity, when we hear about it, almost speaks of a kind of condescension, or at least a begrudging kind of granting of a favor. But that’s clearly not the kind of pity that Jesus has on the crowd before him. The Greek word that we translate as “pity” here is splanchnizomai. Now I’m not a Greek scholar, so I’m not bringing this up to dazzle you with my command of New Testament Greek. Instead I offer it because I think it helps us shed a little light on what this word really means. Splanchnizomai is an example of onomatopoeia, which, if you’re smarter than a fifth grader, you will remember means a kind of word that sounds like what it means.
Splanchnizomai has this kind of deep, guttural sound, which makes us think about a kind of deep, guttural reaction to something. That’s the kind of pity Jesus has for the crowds, a deep, guttural compassion that wells up from deep inside him and makes him want to respond. This is such a strong word in Greek that Mark only uses it in his Gospel to refer to Jesus, or to describe the feeling that Jesus is having.
So in today’s Gospel, Jesus has this kind of pity on those crowds who desperately were following him for lack of anyone to lead them. They were sheep without a shepherd, and he would be that shepherd, choosing to shepherd them by teaching them “many things.”
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 much of the day. 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.”