Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 20, 2003
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ps. 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34)
"I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them"
We continue to explore the meaning of Jesus --- and therefore of our mission --- in this period of Ordinary Time.
The past two weeks were focused on Jesus as prophet, as witness. Today the emphasis shifts to the idea of shepherding. In today's idiom we would speak of leadership.
We encounter the them first in the reading from Jeremiah. It's now 100 years after the time of Amos. Remember, last week we heard the story of Amos the prophet of the Lord being thrown out by the official 'prophet' of the king's court because Amos was proclaiming a vision that was 'upsetting the people.' The spin doctors around the king didn't want anyone contradicting the official cheerleading that all was well.
It's now 100 years later and what is different? In a sense, everything. And in another, nothing. The enemies have changed. Before, the Israelites were on the verge of being attacked by the Assyrians, now it's the empires of the Babylonians and the Egyptians that confront them. They are going to be overcome and led into a long period of exile, the Babylonian captivity. And yet nothing has really changed. The kings are still playing their futile political games, maneuvering and shifting alliances in order to stave off the disaster that faces them.
More importantly, Jeremiah has to confront the same religious reality: a whole series of kings have led the people to abandon the justice called for by the Covenant. Listen to some of the thins he has to say in the passages leading up to today's reading:
"The Lord told me this: Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and there deliver this message: You shall say: listen to the word of the Lord, king of Judah . . . you, your ministers, and your people that enter by these gates! Thus says the Lord: Do what is right and just. Rescue the victim from the hand of his oppressor. Do no wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. . .
Many people will pass by this city and ask one another: "Why has the Lord done this to so great a city?" And the answer will be given: "Because they have deserted their covenant with the Lord, their God, by worshiping and serving strange gods."
The kings had taken the resources of the people and were interested only in lining their own pockets and building sumptuous palaces. Jeremiah says:
Woe to him who builds his house on wrong,
his terrace on injustice;
who works his neighbor without pay,
and gives him no wages.
Who says, "I will build myself a spacious house
with airy rooms,"
Who cuts out windows for it,
panels it with cedar,
and paints it with vermillion.
Must you prove your rank among kings
by competing with them in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink?
He did what was right and just, and it went well with him.
Because he dispensed justice to the weak and the poor,
it went well with him.
Is this not true knowledge of me? . . .
But your eyes and heart are set on nothing
except on your own gain,
On shedding innocent blood,
on practicing oppression and extortion.
Jeremiah is accused of meddling in politics because he sees how futile are their efforts at saving themselves when the issue is really spiritual and religious.
"Put not your trust in kings and horses" -- it's the age-old refrain of all the prophets down through history.
Where do we place our trust?
When we turn to the Gospel we get a different picture of shepherding, of leading the people. Jesus views the people as "sheep without a shepherd." He has pity on them. His focus is on the people, not on his own ego. And his answer? Not to become their charismatic figure but rather to teach them. He gives them the word of life. "Not on bread alone . . ."
And what is that word, that teaching? Just listen: I call you, not servants, but friends . . . Fear not . . . The things I have done you will do, and greater than these will you do . . . Everything I have from the Father is yours . . . The Spirit of truth will reveal to you all that I have told you. It is a word of empowerment, not of slavery. With that bread, that food of life, they -- and we -- are to come to 'full stature'. The time is coming when all will be teachers.
You see, we take a risk when we listen too eagerly to a Jeremiah castigating the false leaders of Israel. How can that be?
I wonder if you remember the name of Eric Byrne. If not, you may recall his books. Back in the early 70s he wrote two small books that swept the country. One was called I'm OK -- You're OK. And the other was called Games People Play. In that second book he unmasked a lot f the tricks we all employ to evade personal responsibility.
One of the 'games' was called "Get the Leader." When things aren't going so well the target of our concern and frustration becomes the leader, the shepherd, the one in charge. We all play that game because it's so easy. "Why doesn't the pope crack down on those liberals -- or those conservatives?" "Why aren't the bishops men of the Gospel instead of corporate executives?" "Why doesn't the president listen to the people?" "Why doesn't the mayor tell Convergys to stand on their own feet like every other corporate enterprise and not hold our city hostage for a financial handout?" "Why doesn't" -- well, you fill in the blanks. We might almost expect to hear someone crying, "Why doesn't the dog catcher start catching the dogs?"
We don't come to church to listen for the word that will challenge the other guy to be converted. "Oh, I hope she's listening because that really applies to her. . . And boy, does he need to listen to that one!" No, the word challenges each of us -- me, and you. Jeremiah does indeed roast the unjust shepherds, but notice that he also includes the people. Perhaps we're inclined to listen selectively: he says "Listen to the word of the Lord, you who sit on the throne of David, you, your ministers, and your people that enter by these gates.
We bear responsibility, for our country and for our church. I heard someone says recently, and wisely, "In a democracy we are the government." The Declaration of Independence doesn't start out "You the office-holders," it is "We the people." And even in our church which sometimes gets smeared for being so hierarchical, at the Second Vatican Council we -- all of us, laity as well as clergy -- were not only allowed to but positively called to speak out when we find our leaders missing the challenge of the Gospel and Covenant. To play "Get the Leader" is to abdicate our dignity and responsibility as people called to live 'in Christ.'
The call to Christian maturity is not easy. It involves walking on the edge of a razor, steering between two equally immature extremes.
On one side lies the reality of authority and obedience. If we concentrate all our energies there we can become accomplices in the sinfulness and injustice that afflicts our church and our society's leaders. Some of them want us simply to remain sheep: be wary of the Voice of the Faithful, to criticize your government is to be guilty of a lack of patriotism.
On the other side lies the risk of taking upon ourselves too easily the mantle of the prophet. If we do that, we can easily become like those rigid self-proclaimed 'true believers' -- messiahs who love to go around presuming to tell others they are going to hell.
The reality is that the word, the Good News, is given to us as a people. We are all called to be teachers, just as we are all called to be taught -- as believers as well as citizens. There is a time for being silent, for listening intently and letting the word bring us up short. And there is a time for speaking out, for refusing to be silenced, because silence is the path of irresponsibility and complicity.
It is a difficult balance. If we are not aware of its painfulness we haven't even begun the journey of the Spirit.
How do we walk that narrow ledge? The only way is to keep our eye fixed on the Father, the one who has placed us 'in Christ.' The mission is not ours, it is God's; it's not about our ego but the word which has gone forth to water the earth and will not return until it has brought fruit.
"I myself will gather the remnant." "The Lord is our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want." And the Lord gives us the only criterion which give us at least some security: whether we speak or are silent, do we do it out of our sense of responsibility for our the Lord's beloved? Not ideological purity but "if you did it for the least of my sister and brothers you did it for me."