Mark tells us that the crowd reaches that ‘quiet’ place before they do. Like Moses with the wandering Israelites, Jesus sees that the crowds waiting for them are “Like sheep without a shepherd.” So, they are shepherded and nourished by him and his words – the crowd’s need for other food will come later. This is still our way: we feed at the table of the Word then at the table of the Bread and Wine.
As Jeremiah promised and we hear in the first reading, Mark shows Jesus acting as the “virtuous branch… The Lord-our-integrity”; God, who will look after his own sheep when their leaders have failed to do so. Jeremiah’s anger at the leaders almost leaps out at us as he berates those shepherds of Israel who do not take care of the people, who do not build them up in unity. There are threats for them: “…you have not taken care of them. Right, I will take care of you for your misdeeds…” But for the people, there is the assurance of God’s care: “I myself will gather…I will raise up shepherds to look after them…” God will not let the flock remain un-shepherded living in fear.
In our parish contexts of walking our road of faith with inquirers, catechumens, candidates and new catholics and with each other, what warnings, teachings and hope might this particular part of ordinary time offer us and prepare us for? Who shepherds us and those with whom we share our stories? As catechists what warnings are we offered about how we shepherd others, for example, those who come as inquirers, and how we allow ourselves to be shepherded along the way. How well do we each know the Lord as “My Shepherd” in truth; and how do we build up the unity of God’s people?
A presumption is, of course, that our notion of shepherding is real, never ‘soppy’. Shepherding is not for ‘whimps’, even in these days when farmer-shepherds often get around to their sheep on quad bikes. So too, taking care of God’s people doesn’t happen without cost to oneself. Indeed, we know it’s a pre-requisite of being a disciple of Christ who laid down his life for the flock!
At the Rite of Acceptance the parish community, sponsors and catechists promise to help the inquirers to “find and follow Christ”. From then on the period of the catechumenate enables them to become “familiar with the Christian way of life…” [The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) n75]. The promise has been made to live along side, to shepherd, the catechumens within the community. The Rite gives us the scaffolding of the example and the support that helps them embrace this familiarity:
“… the catechumens learn to turn more readily to God in prayer, to bear witness to the faith, in all things to keep their hopes set on Christ, to follow supernatural inspiration in their deeds, and to practice love of neighbour, even at the cost of self-renunciation.” [RCIA n75.2]
Jesus’ invitation to those who returned from their mission was to join him in some lonely place to rest. The primary response to conversion and on-going conversion is for the catechumens and ourselves to step back to make time for a deepening of our ‘readiness to turn to God in prayer’. Yet, Jesus shows that the shepherding of those in need challenges us with the ‘practice of love of neighbour’. That service will come with cost to ourselves and our plans. Had the twelve still had nothing to eat while Jesus taught all that day? They are then asked to feed all of that crowd!
In Sunday’s liturgy we will have prayed the psalm before hearing the gospel passage. In that ancient prayer we state our trust in the Shepherd who leads us and spreads a banquet, even though the journey passes through the valley of darkness. May summer breaks offer some ‘rest for a while’ and opportunities to shepherd and be shepherded.