The early Hebrews were pastoralists, moving from place to place with their flocks. Even after they became settlers in the land, the raising of sheep and goats was an important part of the economy. This familiar experience led to ‘Shepherd’ being used in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the leaders of the people, and this was adopted by the writers of the New Testament.
The theme of neglectful shepherds is used by various prophets who preached against the failings of the rulers and priests. God’s stepping in to care for the sheep prepares us for Jesus’ concern in the Gospel selection. In his own time, Jeremiah was looking for a king who would not be careless of his obligations, but fulfil the ideals of the original choice of David and his line. (‘Branch’ is a metaphor for a descendant, with the idea of growing out of a ‘family tree’.) When that hope for an ideal king never came true, by the time of Jesus it was one of the texts leading people to look for a new ‘Messiah’ or anointed leader. The liturgy sees this as a prophecy of the care Jesus our Messiah will have for the untended flock – the needful people God’s love reaches out to.
This has long been a favourite psalm of Christians, with its theme of God’s loving care, and complete confidence in the Lord. It begins with the image of the good shepherd, but also has another Old Testament theme, God feeding his people in a ‘messianic’ banquet. The first is suitable for this week and the provision of food looks ahead to the gospel next week.
The second reading takes a different theme, picking up from last week’s selection from the same Letter. Those who were separated are the Gentiles who were ‘far off’ from the Old Law, but now under Christ are united as a ‘single Body’ with the Jews who accepted the message of Jesus. Now all have the same Spirit and Father. The idea of the church as the ‘body of Christ’ comes from this symbol. We in the Christian community are to be, to act as united as parts of a physical body are to each other. St Paul expands on this in various letters, noting that all parts of the body have their own functions, and all together are necessary.
This sort of unity is a challenge, as experience shows how often members treat others with contempt, emphasise divisions, and some times ostracise those they dislike or disagree with. This applies both within the Roman Catholic faith and between Christians of different churches.
Oscar Romero, soon to be canonised, echoes Paul: ‘God has given the Church a wonderful variety of gifts. Healthy diversity is essential…. Unity embraces diversity and respects the thoughts of others.’
This selection follows on from last week’s reading, when Jesus sent the Twelve out on mission. But if one is reading consecutively in Mark, there are intervening verses, which form one of the ‘sandwiches’ which are a significant way the evangelist organizes his Gospel. Mark at times does not finish a story immediately, but like the ‘bread’ enclosing a sandwich, it will be picked up some verses later. In the gospel, the story in the ‘filling’ often allows for the passage of time and may give the first story some suspense as well. But these centre parts also often have a meaning that reflects on the outer ‘slices of the sandwich’.
The centre in this sandwich is a vivid story of the death of John the Baptist under Herod. Most commentators see in John’s killing a foretelling of the fate that both Jesus and the disciples will suffer. Many of the twelves Apostles would be martyred for their preaching of Jesus, and that would be known to Mark’s first readers. Anyone who speaks out prophetically will often be in danger, and many have been martyred in our time as was Oscar Romero.
Our selection, the last piece of bread in this sandwich, tells of the return of the Twelve after their mission. Mark does not give any details of ‘all they had done and taught’ though clearly they felt it was successful. They must have found it tiring as well, for time to rest is Jesus’ immediate concern for them. When Mark named the apostles he alone says part of their calling is to ‘be with’ Jesus (3:14) and now he plans to take them away from the crowds to be alone with him. He had shown early in Mark (1:35) his own need to get away to a desert place to pray. It is ironic that earlier Jesus’ time to pray was interrupted by Peter and others ‘tracking him down’ and now Peter and the rest are interrupted by others eager to be with Jesus themselves.
These others seem to be not yet committed disciples, but those whom Jesus sees as in special need of care which overrides the need of the apostles for rest. ‘Took pity on them’ – the Greek word is stronger, and means ‘filled with the deepest compassion’. In the New Testament it is used only for Jesus or a Christ-figure in the parables. ‘Sheep without shepherd’ echoes Jeremiah. Jesus’ concern in Mark is to teach them, suggesting the most important need he sees is ‘hunger for the word of God’. ‘At some length’ – the Greek words could be translated that ‘he taught them many things.’ Likely both were true.
But the length does have significance, for what follows in Mark is that the disciples notice how late in the day it is and tell Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that they can go find something to eat. Instead, Jesus will feed the large number of people from a small number of loaves of bread. This ‘multiplication’ miracle we will hear next week, but the liturgy Gospels switch from Mark to John till the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time.