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?