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Shepherd

Australian Country Landscape

Week of Sunday July 22 - Pentecost 8
Gospel: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. ...

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

(Listen to this article here.)

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the desperation of life in this reading. People beg for mercy, the old word for compassion. They are like sheep without a shepherd; like a mob of sheep milling around in panic, with wild dogs destroying it and tearing lives apart. Life is full of anxiety. Even when the dogs are not visible, people live on edge, like prey animals, ready to bolt, never safe, always at risk. Nothing has changed.

If this seems overstated, consider how we panic, and how the media effortlessly whips up hysteria on any issue it chooses. The headline clichés of fury and outrage and scandal are only clichéd—they only work—because we are fragile and afraid. We are like sheep without a shepherd. Society is on edge; the mob explodes in panic at even a hint of wild dog.

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From Ezekiel we see why Jesus heals so much. He is acting out the role of shepherd. He is being “the leader of the congregation” so people will not be like sheep without a shepherd (Num 27:17) He is doing what a person with power should do. He is making the kingdom of heaven “at hand” by his living.

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:2-4)

In Jesus’ world view those who have power, whether they are media, politicians, or merchants, are there to be shepherds. When they do not bind up the injured, bring back the strayed and seek out the lost, they are condemned. There is no division between private life and public morality; life is seamless.

In Jesus’ world view Gerry Harvey has millions only so that he may help people. Alan Jones only has a voice for the purpose of building up society. Tony Abbott is only there for the healing of the sick, and the lifting up of the poor and the homeless, and the rescuing of the refuges and the lost.

I also am here for the good of others, for I too, have power. I have time, and money, and leisure, and ability to reflect and to act. I do not live in that poverty where all of life is a struggle to survive. As such, I am shepherd; gifted and burdened.

8As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:7-10)

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In response to the desperation of God’s people, the Shepherd Jesus does two things, which Mark carefully has the apostles imitate. The lesson is there for us. Jesus feeds and heals, and Jesus teaches.  Likewise, when the disciples return, they tell Jesus “all that they had done... and taught.”

In this, and in Psalm 23, we see a basis for the kingdom of heaven.

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; 
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 

Green pastures and safe, still waters, which are the restoration of our soul, are linked with walking in right paths, which are, simply, living the way of God.

We cannot work for the kingdom of God if we are not on the right path. Every politician goes into parliament seeking to do good, and to serve. And yet most of them seem to end up trying to turn the boats around... in this most insoluble of problems, compassion; that is, mercy, is lost as they leave the right path and seek to maintain their own power and remain re-electable.

Wild Dogs, adapted from an ABC file photoThe right path? You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The economic migrants from Israel, fleeing food shortage, were never to forget from where they had come, and were never to reject the stranger. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

There can be no kingdom of heaven at hand in our living if we do not know the right path. Teaching the kingdom of heaven is to teach freedom, and to heal people from slavery, and free them from powerlessness in the face of the wild dogs and the false shepherds.

Freedom still needs food. I would be a foolish farmer if I led my sheep away from the dogs into a place without grass. There can be no kingdom of heaven at hand in our living if we do not seek to feed and heal and protect.

The ministry of Jesus, and of the disciples, teaches and feeds and heals. We do not live gospel if we do not do both.

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Last night was the inaugural service of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia. One part of this service sees the outgoing President hand the symbols of office over to the new President. After Andrew Dutney had signed the Assembly bible, and received the cross, Al McCrae took off the President’s stole, and placed it upon Andrew’s shoulders. In part, it symbolises the burden of being shepherd to us, which Andrew will carry.

I thought how Alastair would be performing that act with some relief, for many have been coming and going, and there has barely been leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:32)

I remember Wendy and I sitting late at night round a wood fire, with Andrew and Heather. We were sombre at that moment, mourning the untimely death of a colleague, and somewhat fearful of what life might hold. The heavy pressure of being shepherd and disciple was clear.

For Andrew, and for all of us who wish to serve God, it will always be that many are coming and going, and there is barely leisure even to eat. Getting away to a lonely place will always be difficult, and often fail, as we find some crowd has arrived there before us.

Such a life can be crushing. It is tempting to withdraw into a safe job and a nice suburb. And a complete and utter waste of time and life.

The reality of life is that it can only be lived “in the presence of my enemies.” Any other table, no matter it has an overflowing cup, is a pretence, and a denial of reality. The kingdom of heaven is only at hand as we seek to follow right paths, in the presence of our enemies which include death, suffering, and false shepherds. It leads through dark valleys. Only the cup which overflows on this path contains real wine, and real blessing.

Will I follow this path, or will I go another way, and inevitably, become a false shepherd. 

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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