Breath of the Spirit Reflection: Shepherd Me, O God.
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July 18, 2021: the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23: 1- 6
Psalm 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
A reflection by Ann Penick
The theme for this Sunday? Shepherds! What are the qualities of “bad” shepherding? What are the qualities of “good” shepherding? Let’s find out.
In the first reading, Jeremiah refers to the kings of Judah as shepherds. Specifically, this probably means Zedekiah, the current king, and his preceding monarchs: Shallum, Jehoiakim, and Coniah. Jeremiah was a prophet in the final years of the Kingdom of Judah, during the reign of Zedekiah, and he accuses these kings of destroying and scattering God’s people. Jeremiah blames these monarchs for causing chaos and injustice because they cared only for themselves. He believes they failed in their duties to protect, provide for, defend against attack, and act for the well-being of the People of Israel. In fact, Jeremiah blames the exile of God’s people to Babylon on the bad shepherding of these monarchs. For Jeremiah, bad shepherds are characterized by seeking their own needs before the needs of their flock.
Jeremiah prophesies that God, out of compassion, will now personally assume the role of shepherd of Israel - and do some divine house-cleaning! Further, God will raise up shepherds who will care for the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah prophecies that God will restore a renewed royal line of David, a “the righteous Branch” to the Tree of David. Historically, Jeremiah probably had in mind an earthly monarch, but Christians have often understood this passage as foretelling the coming of Jesus as Messiah.
In the reading from Ephesians, Paul is writing to a church community comprised of Jews and Gentiles. They disagree over the need for followers of Jesus to also keep the Jewish law – all 623 of them! The Gentiles did not understand why they had to follow these rules and commandments, while the Jews felt it was very important to follow them. Paul tells them that in arguing with each other they are actually fighting themselves! We are one in the Body of Christ, and to struggle against one another is to harm our own body.
Here, Paul is a good shepherd, raised up by God for God’s people. Paul asks us the same challenging question he asks the Ephesians: How can we make the world a more just place if we can’t even live in peace with each other? God sent Jesus to bring peace to our relationships by giving each of us a new equality as members of Christ’s body – a people made whole through reconciliation. We are reconciled to God in Christ and thus we must reconcile with one another - over 2,000 years later we still have a long way to go! But the good shepherds do not shy away from calling us to the difficult mission of being both reconciled and reconcilers.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus further demonstrates what it means to be a good shepherd. A shepherd’s primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock of sheep - herding them to areas of plentiful food and away from those animals and people who might try to harm them. Pope Francis describes a good shepherd as someone who understands the Church as the People of God on a continuous journey. Shepherds walk side-by-side with people on this journey, guiding them along the pathways of love and reconciliation. The pope says these good shepherds must have vibrant, personal, and intimate relationships with Jesus. Given these criteria, it is worth noting that shepherds are not necessarily clergy!
Shepherding is primarily a ministry of accompaniment. We are not personal problem-fixers or waiting around until something important happens. A shepherd’s service is not just about having available office hours, nor offering only virtual meetings, nor is it only about celebrating the sacraments. True shepherds do wait not for people to come to them but are so moved to accompany their flocks that they go out to meet people where they are, in the circumstances of their lives, to walk with them as – together – they find their way out of the desert. This may be a desert of hunger and material poverty, of trying to sort out gender identity, of navigating relationships, of a dysfunctional family, of personal brokenness, of unemployment, of grief and loss, of being on the move seeking refuge, of sickness and death, of suffering from spiritual wounds, of indifference, or of abandonment. Whatever the situation, good shepherds find us to accompany us – to nourishment, to safety, and to reconciliation – especially those who are most distant, forgotten, or in need of understanding, comfort, and help. Good shepherds bring Christ’s truth and love to a world where the tendency of greed, secularism, religiosity, and selfishness can all too easily prevail.
Shepherds also need to lead in their own self-care to set an example that it’s OK to say “No” without feeling guilty and to prepare for availability. Good shepherds show that healthy boundaries are part of what keeps us all safe and able to love. Jesus does this in today’s gospel. Jesus took time to reflect, relax, and pray. And so those of us who count ourselves among Jesus’ sheep are encouraged to do the same. Without the balance that holy boundaries provide, shepherding can become just another activity: more stress and anxiety, less meaning and purpose. Jesus shows the qualities of a good shepherd, the divine shepherds who guides us into the reign of love, inclusivity, justice, and compassion.
Judah’s experience with bad shepherding, as well as our own negative experiences, can make us cynical about leaders—religious and secular. We can think of recent events in our Church, our nation, and among the world’s leaders where selfish shepherding abounds. But God promises to work through the ages in raising up good, selfless shepherds.
One final thought (or two): Who shepherds you? Who accompanies you on your journey? Supports you? Gives you strength and hope? Who leads you out of the desert and into reconciliation? And to whom might you be a good shepherd? Who looks to you to walk with them through even “through the valley of death,” so they need not be afraid? Who are among those you protect and nurture? Who are those with whom you journey? Jesus is The good shepherd, but we are all called to share in that goodness – walking together, “to dwell in the house of our God for years to come.”
Ann Penick is originally from the Chicago area. She and her husband, Jim, live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Ann was ordained a priest with Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2011. Ann has been serving the faith communities of Dignity Washington and Northern Virginia Dignity as one of their presiders since 2017. She also serves as one of the board members of DignityUSA. In addition, she has been pastoring a faith community of young families in Washington, DC since 2013. Get Breath of the Spirit scripture reflections in your inbox every week.