July 19, 2015: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

He is our peace.

1st Reading – Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
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
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
as king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
“The LORD our justice.”

In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah issues an indictment and oracle of judgment against the monarchy, and offers the people a promise of salvation.

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.

Jeremiah uses sheep herding as a metaphor for leadership, a very familiar concept to the people of that time.

Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.

“Scattered sheep” is likely a reference to the Babylonian exile.

You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.

The monarchy (i.e., the shepherd) has neglected their care for the people (the sheep).

God will see to it that they are punished.

I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.

Jeremiah furthers the shepherding theme by contrasting the notions of scattering and gathering.

In light of the monarchy’s failure, God is personally taking control.

I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.

Note that the new shepherd will be appointed only after the nation has been reassembled, not before.  God himself will re-gather the people.

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,

The prophesy of salvation opens with a conventional eschatological look to the future: “the days are coming.”

when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David; In his days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security.

Like his predecessors, Jeremiah predicts the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (see Isaiah 11:1).

This king will not be like the others, who failed both God and the people; he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land.

At the time of Jeremiah, the kingdom was divided.  Note that both Judah and Israel will share in the salvation of this messianic shepherd.

This is the name they give him: “The LORD our justice.”

Even the very name of the future king will attest to his righteousness.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 2:13-18

Brothers and sisters:
In Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have become near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, he who made both one
and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh,
abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims,
that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two,
thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God,
in one body, through the cross,
putting that enmity to death by it.
He came and preached peace to you who were far off
and peace to those who were near,
for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

The main theme of today’s second reading is unity; a unity accomplished in Christ.

Brothers and sisters: In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.

A change has taken place.  Through the blood of Christ, those who had been “far off” from faith have been brought near to those who already believed.

While Paul does not identify the two groups that have been united, it is clear that the issue being addressed is division within the Christian community itself.  Most likely the two groups are Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians.

For he is our peace,

Christ has not merely brought them peace, he is their peace.  In Christ they are one people.

he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity,

In addition to being an emotional barrier, the “dividing wall of enmity” might have also referred to any of various actual barriers between Gentiles and Jews.

The historian Josephus tells us that in the temple there was a stone wall three cubits (approximately six feet) high separating the outer court from the inner court (The Wars of the Jews, 5.5.2§193-194). On this wall were signs prohibiting any foreigner from going any further, under the pain of death.  Recall that in Acts 21:28-31, a crowd of Jews tried to kill Paul because they thought he had defiled the temple by bringing an Ephesian Gentile into it.

through his flesh,

Certainly a reference to Christ’s death, and possibly a Eucharistic reference as well.

abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims,

The “dividing wall of enmity” might have also referred to the various Jewish regulations that forbade association with non-Jews, or perhaps even the entire law, which set the people of Israel apart from all others.

Initially the Jewish Christians saw no need to relinquish the traditions and practices that were so inherent to their culture, but when Gentiles began to receive the gospel and convert, the role of these traditions (e.g., circumcision) came into question.  Would the Gentile converts need to accept and practice Jewish customs?  The issue was ultimately settled, but the Church was seriously divided on this topic.

“The law that He abolished was that which had been given to the Jews concerning circumcision and new moons and food and sacrifices and the Sabbath. He ordered it to cease because it was a burden. In this way He made peace” (The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles, Ephesians 2:15).

that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace,

Neither group has been assimilated into the other; instead, they have become “one new person in place of the two,” in Christ.  He has brought them together in himself.

“Don’t you see? The Greek does not have to become a Jew. Rather both enter into a new condition. His aim is not to bring Greek believers into being as different kinds of Jews but rather to create both anew. Rightly he uses the term ‘create’ rather than ‘change’ to point out the great effect of what God has done. Even though the creation is invisible it is no less a creation of its Creator” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies On The Epistle To The Ephesians, 5,2,13-15].

and might reconcile both with God,

Christ has reconciled each group with God, and therefore, with each other.

in one body,

We are now one Church, one faith, one body of Christ.

through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.

Paul is reiterating the role of Christ’s perfect sacrifice in establishing this peace.

He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near,

This echoes Isaiah 57:19b: ”Peace, peace to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.” Paul may have been purposely intimating the fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ.

for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

In many ancient courts, an ordinary person could not gain access to the court without some form of introduction, which was often provided by someone of influence or status.  Christ Jesus now provides that introduction, providing us access to God.

Gospel – Mark 6:30-34

The apostles gathered together with Jesus
and reported all they had done and taught.
He said to them,
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
People saw them leaving and many came to know about it.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns
and arrived at the place before them.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.

In last week’s gospel, Jesus sent out the apostles two by two; here, they return.

The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.

This is the only time in the Mark’s gospel that the twelve are called apostles instead of disciples.  Although the two terms of often used interchangeably, “apostle” indicates one who is sent with full authority of the sender (a type of commissioning), whereas “disciple” merely refers to a student.

The apostle distinction is clearly fitting here: the twelve are accountable to Jesus for the use of his authority, and so they are reporting their words and deeds.

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.

The missionaries needed space and rest.

Jesus takes them to a deserted place (erēmos), the kind of place where he himself withdrew for periods of prayer (as in Mark 1:35).

People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.

Their departure did not deter the crowds, who seemed to know where they were going and arrived before Jesus and the apostles did.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,

The vast crowd indicates that either the apostles were very successful on their mission, or news of Jesus had spread abroad, or both.

his heart was moved with pity for them,

The word here for pity is splanchnízomai, profound inner emotion.  It is used only by or about Jesus, and has messianic significance (see Mark 1:42, 8:2, and 9:22).

for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

The people were following Jesus so earnestly in part because there was no one else to follow.  Their desperate hunger for instruction and lack of any dependable leadership triggered his intense response.  In writing this, Mark is issuing a bold criticism of the leadership of his time, as the shepherd image had become a familiar metaphor within the Jewish culture.

Connections and Themes

  • The theme of today’s readings is leadership, seen through images from the world of shepherding.
  • Like the crowds that were desperately following Jesus, the people of Jeremiah’s time were in need of strong leaders to depend upon.  The same is true for us today: we seek instruction, we want to be free from our sicknesses and sins, we need guidance and direction, we seek answers and meaning.
  • Many potential leaders are competing for our attention.  To whom should we listen?  Jeremiah warns us about who not to follow: false prophets mislead, scatter, and drive people away.  They neglect their followers’ needs, and care more for themselves than their people.  They inhibit their followers’ ability to become the best version of themselves.
  • We are no strangers to this phenomenon.  Our modern era has been marked by reports of shepherds who have abused our young.  Their horrific accounts rightfully sadden and enrage us.
  • Problems extend beyond the headlines, as well.  Our priests, bishops, and lay leaders often fall short of the mark.  Shepherding is a daunting and difficult task, not only for church leaders but for parents, teachers, and every giver of care.  The book of Jeremiah was written thousands of years ago, but it could not be more relevant for our day.
  • Thankfully, Jeremiah doesn’t stop at warning us about false prophets; he goes on to describe the qualities of righteous leaders.  Good shepherds champion justice and care for their followers, keeping them safe and secure.  The fact that both kingdoms will be redeemed by the righteous king he describes shows that authentic leaders are inclusive, not divisive.  (Of course, in the lectionary context, Jesus represents the good shepherd that Jeremiah describes.)
  • The reading from Ephesians confirms and elaborates on this quality of inclusiveness.  Christ, the “righteous shoot to David” that Jeremiah predicted, preaches peace to those who were far off and those who are near. Instead of pitting one group against another, he breaks down walls and creates unity.
  • We see this leadership in action in the gospel reading. Jesus directs his apostles to take rest and restore themselves, away from the jostling crowd.  When the people press their needs upon him, Jesus is not only not annoyed, he is moved with deep emotion.  Instead of sending them away, he teaches them.  The needs of his apostles (for rest) and the people (for guidance and instruction) take primacy over whatever needs he may have.  This is servant leadership at its finest.

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