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JULY 19, 2009: SIXTEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:17-18
Mark 6:30-34

As the late John McKenzie pointed out in his book Authority in the Church, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures rarely say anything about obeying those in authority. When the authority issue comes up the point of discussion almost always revolves around the abuses perpetrated by those exercising authority. Scripture is only written when our sacred authors discover problems in their communities. No problems; no Scripture. If those who wielded authority in biblical communities acted according to God's wishes, our Bible would be much thinner.

In the course of his ministry, Jeremiah nails just about every authority figure in 7th and 6th century BCE Israel. Today's passage is classic. "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says Yahweh ... You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them ...."

Since the king set the pattern for both civil and religious authority in ancient Israel, the prophet shares his dream of an ideal king. " ... He shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land ... This is the name they shall give him: 'Yahweh is our justice.'"

I've frequently mentioned the scriptural significance of justice and just individuals. The terms refer to those who not only have proper relationships with God, but also with one another. In this case, the leader who does "what is just," will treat, people as Yahweh treats them, always gathering, never scattering. The prophets consistently remind us that leaders accomplish this unity not by falling back on rules and regulations, but by putting their relations with and commitments to others at the center of their lives. Jeremiah's convinced the only place his people can find such justice is in Yahweh; rarely in their civil and religious leaders.

It's clear from today's other two readings that our ancestors in the Christian faith also believed such an emphasis on justice was at the heart of Jesus' prophetic reform of Judaism.

The Pauline disciple responsible for the letter to the Ephesians zeros in on the radical unity experienced by those who imitate Jesus' faith. Those "near" are Jews; those "far off," Gentiles. Before Jesus, a huge chasm existed between the two. But now, "You who were once far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ .... In his own flesh he abolished the law with its commands and precepts, to create in himself one new person from us who had been two, and to make peace, reconciling both of us to God in one body through his cross which put that enmity to death." All us other Christs find reasons to unite, not scatter.

Mark's Jesus conveys the same message in our gospel pericope. Returning from their first "missionary endeavor," his followers are met by a very just person. "Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little." But then, an unexpected crowd causes Jesus to change his plans and relate to more than just his friends. "He pitied them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them at great length."

It's unforgivable that our liturgical passage ends here. Mark goes on to have Jesus force his disciples to relate to others in need. They refuse to admit that something of theirs can take care of the crowd's hunger. Only after Jesus compels them to bring their "pittance" for his blessing and they begin to share what they have with others do they also begin to imitate Jesus' justice.

Jesus' and our sacred authors' idea of a good leader has nothing to do with his or her faithfulness to rules, regulations or institutional traditions. It simply revolves around being faithful to people.