Sunday, July 22, 2012

Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
16th Sunday
in Ordinary Time
July 22, 2012
Jer 23: 1-6
Mark 6: 30-34
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them” (Jer 23: 3).

Jeremiah is the classic “bad news” prophet, the prophet of doom and gloom.  The shepherds of Israel—the kings of Judah and the priests of Jerusalem—have been leading the people astray.  They’ve tolerated, if not encouraged, idolatry.  They’ve made political choices at odds with God’s will.  They’ve thrived on social injustice, ignoring the needs of the poor.  For instance, 100 years before Jeremiah the prophet Micah had denounced those who “covet fields and seize them; houses, and they take them.  They cheat the owner of his house, a man of his inheritance” (2:2).  Jeremiah faulted nobles, priests, and people for adultery, slander, deceptive practices, and other crimes.

Consequently God has given Judah over to her enemies, the king of Babylon and his army, who have deposed one king and taken him, many of the nobles, army officers, and craftsmen into exile, and they’ve put a new king—intended to be their puppet—on the throne.  But the new king and the remaining leaders are no wiser than the old ones.

“You have scattered my sheep and driven them away,” Jeremiah decries, speaking in God’s name.  “You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds” (23:2).  Worse things are going to come upon Jerusalem, the priests, and the royal family at the hands of the Babylonians.

But Jeremiah also has good news, a promise of better days.  God will bring back together the scattered flock, and he will find them a good shepherd, “a righteous shoot” from David’s house, who “shall reign and govern wisely, shall do what is just and right in the land” (23:5).  “In his days,” Jeremiah continues, “Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security.  This is the name they give him:  ‘The Lord our justice’” (23:6).

Whatever Jeremiah may have thought God had in mind about a new and righteous king from the descendants of King David, and a restoration of the kingdom to peace, prosperity, and justice on all levels, we don’t find that fulfilled in the history of Israel between Jeremiah’s days, 600 years B.C., and the destruction of Jerusalem and the province of Judea by the Romans in A.D. 70; nor does it look like today’s state of Israel is fulfilling what Jeremiah promised.

St. Mark, however, finds its fulfillment in that Son of David whose “heart was moved with pity for the vast crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34).  The apostles have just been out on a preaching and healing mission, as we heard last week (6:7-13); they’ve come back, excited and, presumably, exhausted—this is where this evening’s gospel picks up.  Furthermore, Jesus and the 12 have heard the terrible news that Herod the tetrarch has executed John the Baptist—the passage in ch. 6 preceding our reading (6:17-29)—which we may be sure unnerves them, shocks them.  It’s also Mark’s subtle contrast between the shepherding style of Herod and that of Jesus; Herod proves to be no better than the kings and leaders whom Jeremiah denounced, a “shepherd who misleads and scatters the flock of my pasture” (23:1), who causes the flock to “fear and tremble” (23:4), who disposes of those sent by God, like John the Baptist.

So it’s a good time for Jesus and the 12 to disappear for a while, to “go away to a deserted place and rest” (Mark 6:31), to evaluate what they’ve been doing, what Herod’s done, what the scribes and Pharisees are saying; to ponder what God’s asking of them at this point; to do some pastoral planning.

But life intervenes; reality shows up.  The vast crowd of abandoned sheep shows up at their “deserted place.”  And Jesus, a true shepherd, responds to their hunger by “teaching them many things” (6:34).  Unlike the evil shepherds of Jeremiah’s age, he cares for the flock, gathers them together instead of scattering them, leads them securely with his teaching, his gentle manner, and (tho Mark doesn’t say it here) his binding up their wounds.  As we’ll hear next week, he even feeds them when they’re hungry for physical food as well as for sound teaching (John 6:1-15; cf. Mark 6:34-44).
From an altarpiece in a church in Copenhagen

All of which is a sign, a prelude, to Jesus’ saving of Judah, his establishing Israel in security, his role as the Lord’s justice.  The ultimate salvation, the ultimate security, that he offers to the flock is a right relationship with God (righteousness, or justice in the biblical meaning of the term).  He heals more than bodies.  His teaching brings God close to the flock and makes the flock want to stay with God.  “He is our peace,” St. Paul will proclaim (Eph 2:14), who has “reconciled us with God” (2:16) and given us access to the Father (2:18).

Each celebration of the Eucharist (or any of the other sacraments) is an invitation from Jesus, our good shepherd, to “come away and rest a while,” to be with him and receive access thru him to the Father; to be restored to a good relationship with the Father thru the forgiveness of our sins and a close union with the Son who cares so much for us poor, directionless, and scattered sheep.  So at the beginning of Mass we acknowledge our sins and our humble need to be restored; and we open ourselves to God’s work—liturgy is literally a “public work” in classical Greek, but here it’s God’s work, the mysteries by which he acts to save us, give us peace, lead us to an eternal dwelling in security.

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