A reflection on the readings for Sunday, July 18, 2021 — the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last Tuesday, I was sitting on the steps at the South door of my church, waiting for those who might show up for an RCIA inquiry session. A parishioner drove up to the steps and handed me a bag from Arby’s. It was a fish sandwich. Now, be honest with me—Do I really look that desperate? Have I really become that pathetic?
In reality, this parishioner was caring for me before going to feed the homeless. I have no idea how he knew I was out there on the steps, but it was very heartwarming. Part of me was embarrassed that he found me there alone on the steps, but part of me was deeply touched. Somebody cared enough to break Arby’s with me.
Today’s first reading and Gospel are about shepherds and pastors. These scripture passages are not really points of pride, but indictments of Israel’s leaders. Keep in mind that the social, political, economic, and religious life of the Israelites was so tightly integrated that, when Jeremiah says, “Woe to the shepherds” (Jer 23:1), he is indicting both the civic and religious leaders of Israel. What was their crime? Jeremiah says, “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them” (Jer 23:2). Jesus’ reaction to the failure if leadership is even more profound. Mark tells us that “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34).
In these readings, there is a tension between three realities. The first reality is the fact that Israel’s God-appointed shepherds, both in the Old and New Testaments, have failed to exercise their responsibility. Not only did they not fulfil their obligations, but they even harmed the flock and scattered them. The second reality is how Jesus cares for his disciples whom he had sent out to preach, to heal, and to drive away demons. Jesus sent them out with no food, no bags, and no money in their belts. After they returned and reported to Jesus all they had done and taught, Jesus said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). Yet Jesus and his disciples found it impossible to rest because the people were like sheep without a shepherd. And that is the third reality: the immensity of the task at hand.
Where do we find the balance between work and rest when the work is unending? What are the practical implications we for today that we can take from these readings?
Woe to the Shepherds that Scatter
Let me begin at the same place where today’s scripture readings begin. Jeremiah’s indictment of the shepherds is as relevant today as it was then. I am sorry to say this, but the credibility of Catholic leadership today is at its lowest. There are many reasons. The child abuse crisis is surely the most prominent. But there are also the revelations that abusers were able to continue to abuse because of systemic failures by our shepherds. I wish I could stop there, but from the case of Cardinal McCarrick, we know that many shepherds were themselves predators.
How many lives have been destroyed? How much faith has been damaged? How much trust has been shattered!
More recently, the discovery of mass graves of indigenous children in Canada at residential schools run by the government and religious organizations—including many run by Catholic religious orders—have revealed gross negligence. Add to all this the involvement of Catholic bishops and clergy in partisan politics! Catholic bishops and priests have donned baseball caps and held up signs supporting their favorite candidates, often acting as if they speak for God and the Church. This is a disgrace! But the most glaring failure of our shepherds has been their lack of compassion and mercy. Many of our shepherds have alienated those on the periphery of life and society, and they’ve done it in the name of God.
Today, the numbers speak for themselves. I read that other day that in Germany that 220,000 people left the Catholic Church in 2020. I don’t think such data exists in the US, but if it did, the numbers would be just as alarming. What Jeremiah said to the shepherds of his time he also says to shepherds of today: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. 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” (Jer 23:1-2).
I know that this falls woefully short, but today I beg your forgiveness on behalf of the shepherds who have done harm to God’s flock. I hope you can find the grace to forgive us!
Shepherds that Care
That said, we must not forget that for every bad shepherd, there are ten good ones. I find great comfort in the papacy of Pope Francis. There are many other good shepherds who don’t always make the headlines, but quietly, they are the face of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. To give one notable example, the Church in India is currently grieving the death of a Jesuit priest, Fr. Stan. The 84-year-old Fr. Stan Lourduswamy worked untiringly to empower the indigenous people and to fight for their rights. The government accused him of being a Maoist Communist and arrested him. He was the oldest person ever charged with terrorism in India. All attempts to get him out on bail were denied by the National Investigation Agency. On July 5, he died of COVID complications. Fr. Stan dedicated his life for the flock.
Today, while there might be shepherds who scatter the flock, there are also those who give them their all. And these are not just the civic and religious leaders. These are fathers and mothers, principals and teachers, doctors and nurses, social workers and volunteers, parish staff and food pantry workers, and so many others. Without these good shepherds who genuinely care for the people, church and society would be lost. Today, we support them, love them, and pray for them.
I must admit, lately I have felt like Jesus’ haggard disciples. The work can be never-ending and rest is scarce. Last week I was just assigned a third parish, and we are forming a family of parishes. But I was also told this week that the formation of this family of parishes is not complete. There is a very real possibility we may soon have a family that includes a fourth or even a fifth parish as well.
A fish sandwich is not enough, folks! What else you got?
I am very hope-filled, however. I am prayerfully optimistic. My hope and optimism come from the people I serve. As people left Mass last Sunday, several people stopped by and said, “What is your favorite kind of wine?” Many people offered to pray for me, to take me out to dinner, offer whatever help I needed, or simply stopped to say, “Please don’t forget to get some rest!” One of my parishioners even brought me a fish sandwich from Arby’s. Yes, the task is immense, but you can imagine how refreshing and lifegiving it is at the same time!
Let me offer a suggestion for this week. Is there anyone in your life who could use a ‘fish sandwich’? Is there someone you know—in your home or otherwise—who could use some caring? This week let us be Jesus to one another. Let’s be sensitive to those who are tired, exhausted, and overworked. Tell them, “Come away, and rest awhile!” Let’s make life easier for somebody.
Every celebration of the Eucharist is a time for us to return to Jesus like the disciples returned to Jesus and find rest and nourishment. Each week we come to Jesus with the labors and burdens of the week and place them at the altar. As we embrace the coming week, let us do so with rest and nourishment that Jesus offers. Let us also be rest and nourishment for others.
Main Image: Adobe Stock. Image of Fr Stan Swamy: By Khetfield59 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97433753