Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
16th Sunday of OT, Year B
July 20, 2003
Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34
1) The Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading that the Lord will not allow bad shepherds to destroy his flock. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and I will bring them back to their fold.” We see the Lord fulfill this prophecy in today’s Gospel. Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a Shepherd. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sprang into action and brought them back to the fold. Moreover, he had promised in Jeremiah’s prophecy that he would “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them.” The first wave of these new shepherds were the apostles, whom Jesus was forming first by sending them out with his message and his authority — as we saw in last week’s Gospel — and then by taking them away with him, so that they might tell him all they had done and taught, and so that he could give them the rest they needed to return to serve that fold. When Jesus was coming to shore with them, and saw the vast crowd hungering for a shepherd, he continued his formation of them to be real shepherds, by showing them what real divine compassion is all about. St. Mark tells us that “He had compassion for them and [therefore] began to teach them many things.”
2) The first gesture of his compassion toward the crowd was to teach them. To impart the truth to someone is a great act of charity. Jesus had come down from heaven to teach us the truth about God, the truth about God’s love for us, and therefore the deep truth about who we are and whom we’re called to be. To teach the truth in love is one of the greatest acts of mercy. This is one of the most important purposes of the Church and the Shepherds who act in the name of the Lord. At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this truth is depicted very powerfully in art. At the very back of the basilica, there is one of the most famous pieces in art history, done by the great sculptor Bernini. It’s called the “Altar of the Chair” and it was so beautiful and influential that it art historians say it was the start of the baroque era. At the top of the altar, there is the brilliant translucent image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove surrounded by angels. The Holy Spirit is descending upon a huge bronze chair which houses what in the 16th century was believed to be the actual chair on which St. Peter used to teach the people of Rome. (Much like today when the judge gives his authoritative rulings from the “bench,” in the ancient world, kings, magistrates, rulers used to teach and give formal pronoucements seated on a chair and the chair became a symbol of authority.) Peter’s chair was the symbol of the teaching authority of the Church and particularly of the Popes, the successors of St. Peter, who are Christ’s vicars on earth. The most formal teachings of the Church were called “ex cathedra,” meaning literally from the chair. Underneath the chair there are four bishops, who are all famous teaching saints in the early Church — Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine and Ambrose — who are depicted referring to and spiritually upholding the teaching authority of the Church and papacy. But the element that is most relevant to today’s Scriptures is found sculpted into the back-rest of the Chair. It’s a depiction of Peter feeding Christ’s sheep. It’s a reference to the end of St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter replied that he did. And Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” Peter’s obedience to caring for Christ’s sheep is seen above all, therefore, in his TEACHING Christ’s truth.
3) Just as Christ, the Good Shepherd, looked with compassion on the crowd and taught them, so the Church’s compassion for the crowd is to teach them this truth as well, the truth that sets them free, the truth that helps them become more and more like Christ, who is the Truth incarnate. Similarly, OUR compassion for those in need must involve this element on teaching. “Instruct the ignorant” is one of the spiritual works of mercy and has always inspired those in the Church to pass on the truth of Christ, by founding Catholic schools and universities, by doing catechesis, by RCIA, by talking one on one with friends, by leavening the “marketplace of ideas” with the Truth that comes from Christ. Today, in the face of so many people in our culture who are lost, who don’t know the purpose of their lives, who often go from one pleasure to the next so as not to confront the most fundamental questions of existence, who don’t know the difference between right and wrong, who do not even realize that there is a heaven and a hell not to mention what actions could land them in either place — in the face of so many people who are indeed like sheep without a shepherd, THE GREAT ACT OF COMPASSION THAT THE LORD WANTS FROM US IS TO TEACH THEM ABOUT HIM.
4) But we cannot give what we don’t have. In order for us to be able to give people the greatest gift we ever could give them — the gift of the Lord — we need to “have” the Lord, we need to know Him, we need to love Him, we need to radiate His love for us contagiously so that others will see us as sign posts pointing to Him who fills us with the joy and peace for which their hearts hunger. For us to be capable of bringing Christ to others, we need first to bring ourselves to Him, to spend time with Him, to be fed by Him so that we can in turn feed others. That’s why the first part of today’s Gospel is so important. In his formation of the apostles to be good shepherds of others, he first needed to teach them how to be good sheep. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” They were so busy feeding others that they themselves had no leisure to eat. This, of course, applied to material food, but also it applies to spiritual food. To be able to feed others, we first need to be fed. In order to be capable of being Good Shepherds to others, we first have to be good sheep. We, too, need to heed the Lord’s command to “come away to a deserted place a rest a while.”
5) This, of course, refers to PRAYER, to spending time with the Lord, resting in Him, resting with Him, being strengthened by Him so that we can bring Him to others refreshed. This divine invitation — this command to go away with the Lord — can be applied in many ways:
a) First to the Mass, when we take time away to bed fed by the Lord in Sacred Scripture, through the Christian enthusiasm of others with whom we worship God, and most effectively in His Holy Body and Blood. This is crucial and truly indispensable. But we also have to come here hungry, we have to come here wanting to be fed. We’ve all met Catholics who come to Mass but don’t come with a real hunger. They judge the quality of a Mass, or a priest, or a homily by their watch rather than by their souls. Whereas Jesus’ action in the Mass is always perfect, how much nourishment we receive is dependent upon how hungry we are. We need to come hungry, saying “feed me Lord!” Imagine if the apostles before hopping in the boat said, “Okay, Jesus, we’ll go, but we better be back in less than 45 minutes.” Imagine if the disciples of Jesus started to complain because the Sermon on the Mount went longer than 10 minutes. Our faithful Protestant brothers and sisters, while they don’t have the Eucharist and Sacraments, many of them, especially evangelicals, have a far greater hunger for the Lord than many Catholics, which is one of the reasons why they’re grateful, not upset, when their ministers preach the Word of God to them for 45-90 minutes every Sunday. That’s just the homily. May we all be as hungry to be fed by the Word of the Lord.
b) The second application is to personal prayer, to going away with the Lord all alone in daily prayer. This is a conversation of love, and the most important appointment of our day. The Lord waits for us, he invites us, but we need to go to Him, to talk about our lives, about what we’ve said and done over the day, like the apostles did. Without my daily holy hour, I’m toast. It’s where I get refreshed, where the embers turn into a bonfire, where I bring my sorrows and hopes, struggles and successes. Many times people say they don’t have time to pray each day, but we don’t have the time not to. The busier we are, the more we need prayer. To people who say they don’t have time to pray, I like to ask them a series of questions to help them to see where their real priorities are. “I don’t have time to pray?” “Really? Well do you have time to eat?” They look at me strangely. “Do you have time to sleep?” “Do you have time to watch television?” “Do you have time to talk to anyone on the phone?” Over the course of the 16-18 hours we’re awake each day, clearly we can find 10-15 minutes for the Lord if he’s really God in our lives, if he’s really #1. But we have to make him the priority. Our lives will change forever once we do, once we make time every day to get away from the hustle, bustle, push and muscle of daily life to be nourished by him, so that we can, in turn, nourish those we love, those we live with, those we work with, those we know who need Jesus.
c) The last application for today — which I won’t spend much time on — is an annual retreat, in which we block off at least a couple of days to spend exclusively with the Lord. We all get some vacation time over the course of the year. So often we use it do all types of things — probably all good — but when was the last time we used our time off from work to spend time with the Lord, to bring ourselves and through the spiritual refreshment we receive our families closer to the Lord, by investing that time most appropriately for a few days of prayer. We’re very lucky here in New England that we have so many excellent retreat houses that give retreats and tailor to different types of disciples, on weekends, during the week, during the Summer, at all types of times. If the Pope were coming, for example, to Sacred Heart Retreat House in Wareham to preach a weekend retreat to 20 people, would you be interesting in going, to receive the Pope’s spiritual advice applied to your own life? I think you would. Well, the Pope’s boss, Jesus Christ, is there. All the MORE reason to go.
6) A real Christian life, a life worth living, is a life that balances action and prayer, work and contemplation. We see it in the life of Jesus, who went about doing good, but then would retire all by himself in prayer to His Heavenly Father. We see it in how he trained his disciples, sending them out to teach and to do great deeds with his own authority, but then taking them away by Himself to hear from them what they’ve been doing and to refresh them. That’s what Jesus wants from us. Real hard work, for HIM, in the world, at home, in whatever good, honest and noble things we do for most of the day. But then he wants us to go away with Him so that he can help us to focus on the things that matter most, and make us capable of doing all those less important things better, in a more holy way, in a much more fulfilling way. He is the Good Shepherd, but we have to receive His compassionate teaching today, and be good sheep, hearing his voice in prayer. The Lord is OUR shepherd. Nothing do we lack — with him we have it all. He leads us in verdant pastures, in right paths for his namesakes. He’s prepared a table before us — of His Word and of His Body and Blood. May we dwell in His House forevermore.