Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Mark 6:30-34; 53-end Jeremiah 23:1-6
If you’ve ever seen a shepherd at work, you will appreciate how hard that work is. A shepherd needs to keep a constant eye on the sheep, as they are prone to all sorts of ‘silly’ behaviour. They wander off to dangerous places. If the grass on ‘the other side’ looks a bit greener, they are tempted instantly, often to their peril. One thing, for instance, is that a sheep can’t get up unaided if it’s fallen on its back. The risk of sheep perishing is always there, so shepherds need to keep their wits about them. It’s very interesting to watch a shepherd work with a sheepdog. The dog is trained to get the sheep move in the right direction and to keep them together, as the shepherd directs. That’s only during the day. At night time, there’s another thing to watch out for: predators and thieves. The analogy of people being like sheep, as Jesus says, is an apt one, I think. The prophet Jeremiah also echoes God’s words about shepherds and their sheep as an image of the people of Judah and their leaders. Not a favourable one, mind! What’s more, the oracle is aimed mainly at the shepherds, because they are the ones who have been given the responsibility for the sheep, and they should know how to look after them, following God’s instructions. Alas, it was not going well, and so God sent his prophet to hold the rulers to account, using the imagery of shepherds looking after sheep, or not looking after the sheep in this particular case.
Jesus, in Mark’s account, also uses this imagery, showing compassion for the sheep who are without a shepherd. Not only were the people without proper care, there was no care at all. So, the account says, he had compassion, for they did not know what they were doing, and he began to teach them what they didn’t know.
The reading from Mark’s gospel is strangely cut in two; only the first and the last part are read today, leaving out the feeding of the five thousand which usually dominates this passage. But it does help us focus on the image of the shepherd and the sheep. The last part picks up on the theme, and says that wherever Jesus went, they laid the sick in market places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
If we think about this: the people were like sheep without a shepherd, so Jesus began to teach them, being their true Shepherd. This teaching was like feeding them properly, giving them the nourishment that they had been lacking, so they didn’t have to try leaving the safe pastures of God’s care and go to some other place, no matter how ‘green’ the grass there was looking. Then, after Jesus had fed the five thousand, he went to other places and there he offered them healing from their sicknesses. Being a Good Shepherd, not only did he recognise the people’s need for feeding, he also offered a complete wholeness. In sheep speak: the people had fallen on their back and couldn’t get up unaided. And only their true Shepherd, the one who was looking out for them, could help them back on their feet again. Their lives were upside down, topsy turvy, because of a lack of proper care, but Jesus got them straight again. So what’s the lesson for us today?
As this account, as well as Jeremiah’s oracle, were aimed mainly to the leaders and rulers, we could easily dismiss it as not relevant for most of us. But that would be a mistake. Of course, leaders and rulers need to be held to account, but the burden of their task is made harder if the others – those who belong to their flock – have a habit of wandering off, not taking the feed that’s on offer, even inciting their peers to not heading the voice of the shepherd or even the sheepdog… Is this a lesson for the sheep, to all of us, in fact, to listen to Jesus? Is it a reminder that we need to stay close in fellowship and prayer and worship, so as to stay well-nourished and safe? If so, let’s hope and pray that we will truly hear and act in response to God’s love for us, and be whole in his care. Amen.