Sunday Week 16 Year B

Retreat directors are a sneaky bunch—they often give today’s gospel to people coming on a retreat as an invitation to ‘come away to a quiet place by yourself and rest for a while’—and they completely leave out the bit about not actually getting any peace or quiet when you get there. All the clamouring crowds have worked out where you are going and they’ve got here ahead of you—asking, needing, occupying, bothering. Retreat directors don’t mention that bit. We wouldn’t want you emulating Jesus paying attention to the crowding distractions.

But Jesus does—pay attention—you get the sense almost against his better judgment. Despite his plans he is moved to pity. He can’t ignore the crowd because he sees them like sheep without a shepherd.

I don’t know much about sheep. I don’t much care to meditate on sheep after a lunch of lamb. And I’m allergic to wool. But here goes.

What does that mean—like sheep without a shepherd? Jeremiah has some hints at an answer and the psalmist helps. Sheep without a shepherd, they say, scatter, they wander. Maybe that’s how Jesus saw them all trailing after him, following anything that moves. What else? Sheep without a shepherd miss the best grazing, they fail to thrive, and the undernourished flock dwindles. Finally—and Jeremiah seems to underline this—without a shepherd the sheep are afraid, in terror. Scattered, neglected, afraid.
There’s the pastoral role in a nutshell—to gather, to care, to protect. Now, back at the shore, Jesus sees the crowd and takes pity on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd and he does what? Gather them, care, protect? No! He sets himself to teach them at some length. It’s a strange shepherd teaches sheep to be sheep?

Isn’t that a little odd?

Perhaps we are like sheep without a shepherd. But here’s the question: is Jesus offering himself to us as a shepherd; or is he teaching us that we need not be sheep?

9 replies on “Sunday Week 16 Year B”

  1. I heard today that, to stop the lambs wandering, the shepherd would sometimes break one of its legs and carry it around his neck until the leg healed so that the physical contact would bond the lamb to him and it wouldn’t be tempted to stray in future. While I like this picture to an extent, I’m not sure about God disabling us, even for our own sake. But ……

  2. Ouch! Ouch, ouch! It must be obvious I\’m not eager to be sheepish but … ouch!

    I wonder whether God doesn\’t choose to be the lamb with the broken leg so we have to carry him around our necks and make the bond and learn not to stray.

  3. is Jesus offering himself to us as a shepherd; or is he teaching us that we need not be sheep?

    The latter makes Jesus less of an enabler and seems more about freedom.

  4. I’m not sure about the “not being sheep” thing.

    I remember hearing a sermon once that said that the thing about the Christian life is that you’re always supposed to keep your “L plates” up. I thought that was quite humbling and encouraging.

    But I do agree Jesus wants us to take responsibility for ourselves and the decisions we make. Would “responsible sheep” be too much of a mixed metaphor?

  5. PaulH: I’ve been wondering how to respond to your comment and that’s my excuse for taking a while…

    We read this passage from Mark that mentions sheep and shepherds and we can’t help but hear in the background the rich images from John’s gospel and the stories we’ve absorbed since childhood picture books of Good Shepherds etc. Indeed the other readings for the day set up that context for hearing this piece from Mark. It’s no wonder that we try to interpret this fragment of Mark in terms of what it is to be a sheep or not be a sheep or what a good shepherd might be like. I think what I wanted the homily to do was undermine that interpretation a little so that maybe something else could come through. Mark sets up Jesus’ response to the crowd in which he teaches them as being because they were like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus doesn’t say he was putting himself in the place of Good Shepherd nor that he was teaching the crowd to be better sheep. So rather than jumping to conclusions … what if there are other non-sheepy readings of this story — what might they be like? And why would I be so eager to be a sheep anyway? What is the attraction of having a shepherd — even a good one — and is that attraction wholly good?

  6. And why would I be so eager to be a sheep anyway? What is the attraction of having a shepherd — even a good one — and is that attraction wholly good?

    I suppose that depends on what you are to begin with. If you’re a cow or a buffalo, then does it make sense to be a sheep? But, if you’re a sheep, then does it make sense to be anything but a sheep? A sheep that’s eager to be a wolf without a master can never really be free, can it?

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