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Reflections for the XVI Sunday of the year

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the sixteenth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings explain how God, like a Good Shepherd, redeems His people and provides for them.

Jer 23:1-6, Eph 2:13-18, Mk 6:30-34)

Homily starter anecdote: # 1:  Altar of the Chair:” Today’s Gospel presents Jesus as the Good Shepherd for people who were like sheep without shepherd. At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the role of Pope as a teaching shepherd 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 art historians say it was the start of the baroque era. It was Pope Alexander VII who commissioned Bernini to build a sumptuous monument which would give prominence to the ancient wooden chair believed to have been used by St. Peter.  Bernini built a throne in gilded bronze richly ornamented with bas-reliefs, in which the chair was enclosed: two pieces of furniture, one within the other. 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 sat to teach the people of Rome. Peter’s chair is a 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 are 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 backrest 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 in caring for Christ’s sheep is seen above all, therefore, in his TEACHING of Christ’s truth. Every year on February 22, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, to commemorate St. Peter's teaching in Rome. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Introduction:  Today’s readings explain how God, like a Good Shepherd, redeems His people and provides for them. They also challenge us to use our God-given authority in the family, in the Church and in society, with fidelity and responsibility.   Today “pastoral” ministry includes not only the pastoral care given by those named or ordained as “pastors” but the loving service given by many others who follow different callings to serve and lead others. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah (sixth century B.C.), thunders against Israel's careless leaders - the king, some priests and some court prophets – because they have shown no concern for the poor. The prophet also foretells the rise of a good, new shepherd in the family line of David. Then he consoles the Israelites enslaved in Babylon, by assuring them that God will lead them back to their original pasture in Israel.  Today’s Good Shepherd Psalm (Ps 23) affirms David’s faith and trust in God, the Good Shepherd.”   The second reading introduces Jesus as the shepherd of both Jews and Gentiles and explains how Jesus, the good shepherd, reconciled all of us with His Father by offering himself on the cross. Paul also speaks about another reconciliation, that between the Jews and the Gentiles, brought about by Jesus who accepted both into the same Christian brotherhood. The reading from the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as the good shepherd fulfilling God’s promise given through his prophet Jeremiah in the first reading.  Here we see Jesus attending to his weary apostles, who have just returned from their first preaching mission, while at the same time expressing his concern for the people who, like “sheep without a shepherd," have gathered to meet him in the             wilderness.

 First reading, Jeremiah 23:1-6, explained:  The prophet Jeremiah lived from about 650 BC to perhaps 580 B.C. Most of his work was in Judah's capital, Jerusalem. He tried to keep the people and several kings faithful to God amidst an atmosphere of political intrigue and backstabbing. Jeremiah was blunt about what was right and what was not.  He suffered at the hands of the powerful because of his outspokenness. At the time of this prophecy, a good king in Judah had just been replaced by a king who allied Judah to Egypt. Jeremiah was sent by God to rage against this policy, reminding the people and the King that God's people should trust in God, not in alliances with pagan nations. Some flattering "prophets" of the court backed the King and criticized Jeremiah. But Jeremiah remained a vigorous, courageous, outspoken man. Today we'd say Jeremiah had fire in his belly. Here he thunders on behalf of a God outraged at the powerful people's neglect of their responsibility to the poor. "I gave you the privileges of a shepherd, you mislead and scatter the flock, I'm about to replace you, and my people will be restored!" Jeremiah assured his audience that Yahweh would give them a "new shepherd," a new leader who would exercise Yahweh's care and concern for His people. Jesus fulfills the prophecy of the good shepherd God promised through Jeremiah – the one who would shepherd the sheep “so that they need no longer fear and tremble,” and the Davidic king who would do what was just and right in the land. Jeremiah’s prophetic denunciation of faithless servants in the Old Testament is applicable also to our own time. All of us who exercise responsibility in various ministries in the Church, in family life and in society, are called to imitate God’s diligent, effective caring by bringing people together, leading them and showing selfless concern for our subjects rather than taking personal advantage of them.

Second Reading, Ephesians 2:13-18, explained: In this reading, Paul celebrates the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (first reading) of a future shepherd who would gather the dispersed and the scattered into one people of God. This passage explains how Christ has brought about reconciliation between ancient enemies, the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul says that the Jews were "near" and the Gentiles "far off." But by becoming Christians, those Jews, who had enjoyed God's favor for so many generations, have now accepted Christ as the Messiah. The converted Gentiles had long been estranged from God. But they, too, have now accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. Hence, as Christians, the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians are now no more enemies but brothers and sisters. The Law of Moses “with its commandments and legal claims" served to separate the Jews who kept it from the Gentiles who didn't know of it and didn't bother. Against the attempts by some Jewish Christians to impose the Mosaic Law on Gentile converts, Paul affirms that the Law can no longer separate God's single people into factions. 

Gospel Exegesis: The context: Today’s Gospel passage presents the sympathetic and merciful heart of Jesus who lovingly invites his apostles to a desolate place for some rest.   Jesus had sent his apostles on their first mission, which was one of healing, teaching and preaching.  When they returned, they were no doubt exhilarated by the experience. They had witnessed at first hand, the power of God's Word.   Nonetheless, they were hungry, exhausted, and in need of rest, both physical and spiritual. In fact, Jesus was eager to hear about their missionary adventures as they proudly shared their experiences. But Jesus, too, was in need of a break from the crowds who were constantly pressing on him, demanding his attention and healing. Hence, he led the Apostles by boat to a “deserted place” on the other side of the Lake for a period of rest and sharing. Today’s Gospel teaches that “the mission of the Church should be based on the Gospel of compassion we seek to live and share, from the authority of our commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation; and that leadership, inspired by the wisdom of God, means not dictating and ruling over others but inspiring, providing for and selflessly caring for those whom we are called to lead.” (Connections).

2) “Sheep without shepherd:” But when they came ashore there was a large crowd waiting for them. Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for those people who were “sheep without a shepherd.” Here the reference to the shepherdwas probably to religious leaders, because at this time the Jews were an occupied people and the real political power was in the hands of the Romans. This brief description, “sheep without a shepherd,” is also dense with Biblical allusions. Like the people of Israel, the crowds were in the desert where they would receive not only miraculous food (next Sunday’s Gospel), but guidance and instruction, just as the Torah had been given in the desert of Sinai.  “Sheep without s shepherd” will perish because a) they cannot find their way and will probably end up eaten by a wolf or other carnivores   b) they cannot find pasture and food and c) they have no defense against the dangers which threaten them.   Jesus' first act with this shepherd-less sheep was to teach them [v. 34] and then to feed them [vv. 35-40] and finally to protect his closest disciples who were also His sheep from the storm [vv. 45-52]. This text affirms Jesus’ extraordinary availability and his compassion for the needy. It teaches us that a Christian should be ready to sacrifice his time and even his rest in the service of the Gospel.

Life messages: 1) Christians must be people of prayer and action: The Christian life is a continuous passage from the presence of God to the presence of people and back again. Prayer is essentially listening to God and talking to Him. One of our main problems is that we do not truly allow God the opportunity to speak to us.  We also do not know how to "be still and to listen." Hence, we are often in danger of refusing to allow God to recharge us with spiritual energy and strength.  In addition, we do not set aside enough time for Him to speak to us and for us to speak to God.   How can we shoulder life's burdens if we have no contact with the Lord of Life?  How can we do God's work unless we rely on God's strength?  And how can we receive that strength unless we pray to him individually, in the family and as a parish community in the Church and receive His grace by participating in the Holy Mass and through the reception of the Sacraments? However, we must never seek God's fellowship in order to avoid the fellowship of men but always in order to prepare for it.   From our reflection on today’s Gospel, let us remind ourselves that the Christian life consists of meeting with God in the secret place so that we may serve people more effectively in the market place.

2) The Church has the double responsibility of teaching and feeding: People today find it difficult to balance those two aspects of the Christian life. Some apparently believe that the social ministry of the Church is all that is needed to make Christ present in the world.   Others seem to believe that the Church's major concern should be preaching the Gospel, rather than feeding the hungry and healing the sick.  The Church's duty, so the argument goes, is to spread the Gospel and provide for public worship. Both views are one-sided.  There can be no true Christianity without the proclamation of the Gospel. Teaching the Word of God is essential to a Christian community.  But that is only half of the story. Christians must also display the same compassion for the suffering that Jesus exhibited by meeting the social and material needs of others - even those who are not members of our Church.

3) The Church needs ideal pastors: The pastor must be a person of compassion. He must be able to feel deeply the suffering of others, to understand why they fear and tremble. The pastors are also called to lead and “govern wisely” (Jer 23:5), living the teaching they communicate. They are to guide people in right paths and are to be concerned about what is right and just. Their pastoral care should be involved and peaceful care and guidance. There are very many people searching for truth today, people hungering for instruction, good people who are looking for direction. They may be parents who are sick with grief over the future of a troubled child; a man stripped of his dignity by unemployment; a woman facing a pregnancy alone; elderly people who feel the diminishing surge of life in their bodies; people who are angry and confused because they have lost confidence in their leaders, whether political or religious. They are people who are looking for answers and for meaning. They are like sheep without a shepherd. They all need ideal pastors filled with the spirit of Christ the “Good Shepherd.” (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

19 July 2018, 10:32