Last week I talked about power, what it can do to those who take it, or are given it. We heard about Herod, the disciples being sent out, and the great power in Jesus’ teaching of surrender and simplicity that he gives to the disciples. There is a lot that happens in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus sends out his disciples, the story of how John the Baptist is killed is given; Jesus feeds the five thousand and walks on water. These are all major events in Mark’s narrative, so much so that the passages appointed for today seem to pale in comparison. Sure, Jesus heals many people in the end, but otherwise these excerpts seem to have missed the dramatic boat. They have not however missed the teaching that the entire Gospel of Mark is pointed at. Mark’s gospel likely comes from a time when the Roman Empire and the Emperor Nero where treating Christians as badly as Herod treated anyone he thought was a menace. If the Gospel of Mark comes from slightly earlier, then it is Emperor Caligula, who was even worse. To offer further context, the Gospel of Mark starts out as a purely oral tradition. It is the shortest Gospel, and is easily told as a grand story over the course of a couple hours. It was composed in a way that told Christians that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and what that Kingdom looked like. It drew the lines clearly in the sand and showed the early Christians where they stood in relation to empire, and it continues to do so today.
In fact, the Gospel lesson today serves to advance the inauguration of the kingdom of God in Jesus. It emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the true, divine shepherd, who will guide his sheep into the kingdom; and the nature of the kingdom, through healings that continue to disrupt the man-made structures of authority and economy of the world. People are flocking to the great Shepherd, because all others like Herod, like Nero, like so many rulers over the ages have proven to be those shepherds that Jeremiah warns us about, those that scatter the flock.
And in case you have been reading your Mark during this season, don’t fret. Though we take a huge leap in stepping over the feeding of the five thousand, we will come back to it next week, in our Gospel lesson from John.
To say there is a lot of shepherd imagery in the readings this week might be a little bit of an understatement. That word is used in most of our readings. The 23rd Psalm, one we know very well, even makes an appearance. It was only a couple months ago on Good Shepherd Sunday where the 23rd Psalm showed up in our lectionary. And yet, for a Psalm we know, for one most of us can recite, usually from the King James version of the bible, a Psalm that can be overused and begin to get a little tired; it helps to illustrate to us how scripture can be incredibly versatile. Think about how many times you’ve heard it, and in how many different circumstances you’ve heard it. It’s different when you hear it today, compared to the themes of Good Shepherd Sunday, compared to when you hear it at a funeral, or other places and times in life. Our tendency can often be to say, ‘Yes, I know that one already.’ But the challenge is to ask what you heard differently at that time, in that place, listening with fresh ears. Sometimes, like today, it is paired with other readings about the shepherding of God’s people. Consider, that some of the images we are given throughout scripture, can mean different things in different times and places, like water for example. The image of water in the 23rd Psalm is potent. ‘He leads me beside still waters’ can’t you just close your eyes and see that perfect place, smell the freshness of it? Water to us though means different things during the summer or winter, whether we are in droughts or devastating floods. When we ask for rain and get hail. To the ancient nomadic Jews water meant something different altogether than what most of us can understand in relation to the very basic necessities of life. Something that stands out to me a lot in this also is meditating on ‘you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies’ and ‘my cup overflows’. It makes me think about the abundant meal that we have in the Eucharist, one at which we share the table with all who come. Which brings us right back to talking about the kingdom of God, and Jesus, the new shepherd who has come.
Following as it does the narrative of John’s beheading, this particular passage in Mark serves a continued indictment of Herod. The people of God have become precisely what many of the prophets warned against, sheep without a shepherd, weakened and scattered and vulnerable. So it’s no surprise that the people, in the longing for something better, greater, begin chasing after the true shepherd who they know will bring them into the Kingdom of God. Jesus, moved in compassion for these lost sheep, “began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The food for which the people hunger is the very word of God, and in so feeding them Jesus shows himself to be a shepherd “after [God’s] own heart,” feeding God’s people “with knowledge and understanding” (Jeremiah 3:15). What is more, he shows himself to be the divine shepherd, the very Son of God in whom the kingdom will be fulfilled.
The crowds that follow and gather around Jesus, the healings and casting out of demons, the miraculous feedings are all signs that the Son of God is shepherding the people into God’s kingdom. Indeed, Jesus proclaims in Mark 13:27 that on the last day he will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” Mark is clearly identifying Jesus as the divine shepherd, who will gather his sheep from the places where they have been scattered.
We see such an intense snapshot of human need in our Gospel today. Let’s set the scene for a moment, the disciples have returned from their journeys, they are sharing their stories, and still many more people are coming and going, things are so hectic that there isn’t even time to eat, so Jesus says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Jesus is trying to remove them to a solitary place to recharge. But the crowd gets there ahead of them, on foot, and no matter where Jesus is at, as soon as he is recognized people are bringing him the sick, the lame, carrying them on mats and laying them before Jesus to be healed. It’s important to remember how pressing the human need is at that time and in that place.
But it’s not just then that the need was so great, and now is not the only time when the World has seemed so dark. It is a constant struggle in our existence to find the still waters, to relax in the green pastures. It is our work, our common task as followers of Jesus Christ to roll up our sleeves and continue the work that Jesus was doing, trusting in our Faith. That is how we follow the Great Shepherd. We find our solace, our respite in the promise of the Kingdom of God that is at hand, and it becomes our job to offer that same healing to the world. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul helps us remember who we should extend this healing to. He explains who the chosen are that get to be healed, comforted, fed, clothed, sheltered, to be gathered into Jesus Christ, the Holy Temple of God. It often seems difficult for us to remember who those chosen are. Who we need to serve.
It’s everyone in case you were waiting for a big reveal.
Jesus shows us what we should be doing, and Paul reminds us for whom we should be doing it. We have to continually tear down the walls and barriers that we naturally like to put up. We have to remember again and again that we are one body. Paul writes, “(Jesus’)…purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.”
In the New International Version or NIV translation of the bible, the 23rd Psalm begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing.” Trusting in the abundance that is found as followers of Jesus Christ is precisely the point. Seeing how blessed we really are, and offering that new perspective to everyone we meet. It is our obligation to seek out those who do lack, and do what you can to comfort them. This is not to say this is any sort of Prosperity Gospel. That is not what Jesus offers. This is a difficult path to tread, but it leads directly to the healing and restoration of all things in the Kingdom of God.
As the Celtic Christian writer Patrick O’Connell says, “As we all are called to our own unique expression of Christ-likeness, we all have our kind of shepherding to do. We are apprentices – assistant herders to the Great Shepherd, each of us. Or perhaps, and I fair know this is true for me, we’re His border collies…sheepdogs for the Living, Loving God.”
The Gospel of Mark continues to show us where we stand in relation to Empire, what it means to be a follower of the Great Shepherd. Your work is to go out from this place and find ways to offer that restoration of soul to those who are hurting, to those who are sick, hungry, to those who are afraid. Everyone needs some still waters from time to time, so let’s get out there and point the way.