July 18, 2021: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

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.”

The prophet Jeremiah lived in Judah before and during the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.

In the chapters that precede today’s first reading, Jeremiah foretold the Babylonian exile, which came to pass on account of the kings’ failure to keep God’s covenant.

Now Jeremiah looks to the future, using the image of shepherds to proclaim a new era in which God himself will be the shepherd-ruler of his people. It is an indictment and oracle of judgment against the monarchy and a promise of salvation for the people.

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.

When Jeremiah first became a prophet, Josiah, the great reformer in Judah, was king. However after Josiah died and his sons took over the throne, the numerous abuses that Josiah had tried to correct again became prevalent. Josiah’s successors are the “shepherds” that Jeremiah is addressing.

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 a reference to the Babylonian exile. The exportation to Babylon occurred over a period of several years.

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

One of the major roles of a prophet is to remind those who have not been faithful to God that they will be held accountable for their actions. Jeremiah warns the kings that God will take care to punish their 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.

Another role of a prophet is to offer hope. Here, 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.

No matter how dreadful things appear, hope is always realistic because God will be faithful to his covenant even when the people are not.

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.

After God himself has regathered the people, he will appoint new shepherds to lead them.

Pope Saint John Paul II referred to this oracle to stress that the new people of God, the Church, will always have pastors to guide it:

“In these words from the prophet Jeremiah, God promises his people that he will never leave them without shepherds to gather them together and guide them: “I will set shepherds over them [my sheep] who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed (Jeremiah 23:4).

The Church, the People of God, constantly experiences the reality of this prophetic message and continues joyfully to thank God for it. She knows that Jesus Christ himself is the living, supreme and definitive fulfillment of God’s promise: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). He, “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), entrusted to the apostles and their successors the ministry of shepherding God’s flock (cf. John 21:15ff.; 1 Pt 5:2)” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 1)

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,

The prophecy 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; 

Like his predecessors, Jeremiah predicts the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (see Isaiah 11:1). This is important because one of God’s covenant promises was that the house of David would be secure forever (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17).

The “righteous branch,” meaning the future king, will eventually become a technical term for the Messiah, in both Zechariah (Zechariah 3:8, 6:12) and the New Testament (Luke 1:78).

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 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. He will fulfill all kingly ideals.

Note how both kingdoms of Judah and Israel will share in the salvation being foretold.

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

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

All this insistence on the king’s justice and righteousness shows Jeremiah’s insistence that the future Messiah will be David’s legal, legitimate descendant. In this new era, justice will reign and there will be peace and security; it will be a time of definitive salvation.

The Babylonians did eventually conquer all of Judah. With the final deportation, all the upper-class citizens of Judah were transported to Babylon, where they remained in exile from 587-537 BC. Israel did not have an extended time of self-rule after the exiles returned to the Holy Land; there was not a time when a king from David’s line was on the throne.

When Christians hear Jeremiah’s oracle of a future king whose name will be “the LORD our justice,” we hear a description of Jesus. Unlike Josiah’s successors who scattered the flock and did not care for them, today’s gospel reading will show how Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for the crowd, who “were like sheep without a shepherd.”

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, the Gentiles to whom Paul is writing have been brought into God’s covenant of love.

The preceding verses add context: “Therefore, remember that at one time you, Gentiles in the flesh…. were at that time without Christ, alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11a,12).

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, dietary restrictions) came into question. Would the Gentile converts need to accept and practice Jewish customs? The issue was ultimately settled, but the early 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 (366-384 AD), 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 (392-397 AD), 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.

In the context of our lectionary readings for this Sunday, we see that Paul emphasizes the fact that Jesus is the good shepherd for the whole flock, not just part of the flock.

Jesus “is our peace.”

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 Mark’s gospel that the twelve are called apostles instead of disciples. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, “apostle” indicates one who is commissioned with the full authority of the sender, whereas “disciple” merely refers to a student.

The distinction is fitting here: the twelve are accountable to Jesus for the use of his authority, and so they are reporting their words and deeds. Their ministry is not their own but rather an extension of Jesus’ ministry.

He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” 

Jesus had sent the apostles out with instructions to accept the hospitality of those whom they were serving. That meant they gave up any expectation of privacy or quiet time. Now the returned missionaries need space and rest.

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.

Concerned for their welfare, 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).

Mark often pictures the crowds causing a problem for Jesus. Here, they press on Jesus and the apostles so much that they cannot even pause to eat. This prompts them to escape in a boat.

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.

Undeterred, the crowds figure out where Jesus and the apostles are going and arrive ahead of them.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,

Jesus and the apostles arrive only to be met by a “vast crowd.” Mark is making it clear that the crowds are really besieging them.

Either the apostles were very successful on their mission, or news of Jesus has spread abroad, or both.

his heart was moved with pity for them,

Having been given all this build-up by Mark, we might expect to find Jesus annoyed with the crowd. He could have explained to the crowd why he and the apostles needed some time away.

However, Jesus is not annoyed. Instead, he is moved with splanchnízomai, profound inner emotion. This term 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;

A clear connection with our first reading.

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.

and he began to teach them many things.

Instead of trying to get away again, Jesus begins to not only teach them but teach them “many things.”

Mark, whose gospel emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, does on occasion picture Jesus’ frustration. We see this most often in his relationship with the Pharisees, but it is also evident in his relationship with the apostles.

However, in this case, Jesus expresses no frustration. His heart goes out to the crowd and he responds to their needs.

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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