The image of the shepherd as a symbol for God’s leadership and pastoral care of his people occurs at various places across the Hebrew scriptures, most famously in the Shepherd Psalm, number 23. It has also taken a significant hold on the Christian imagination. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep, or bringing the lost sheep home on his shoulders.
This picture of Jesus has influenced the church’s images of its leaders, so that in many traditions the ordained minister is called the “pastor,” and ministerial care of the community is called “pastoral care.” Behind both of these understandings of ministerial vocation is the sense that the minister is called to lead in the image of Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd.
Jesus’ shepherd-discourse takes place during the feast of Hanukkah, or the feast of the Dedication, which commemorated the victory of Judas Maccabeus some two hundred years earlier.
Every time the Jewish people celebrated Hanukkah, they certainly thought about God and liberation. They also thanked God for having the Temple back again. But they also thought about kings, and how they became kings.
Here we see Jesus, walking in the Temple during this festival, talking about the good shepherd, the real shepherd, the king who would come and show all the others up as a bunch of thieves and brigands. Never let it be thought that Jesus’ message was anything other than controversial—and dangerous. Never forget that this famous ‘good shepherd’ chapter of John 10, ends with people trying to stone Jesus to death.
Jesus’ ‘sheep’ are therefore those who hear and receive his message of a different kingdom. His life has climaxed in the revelation of God being at work in and through him. While many have accepted his redefinition of kingship many others do not, because they are determined to follow a vision of the ‘age to come’ which will be attained through the establishment of a worldly kingdom.
Jesus promises that he will give us eternal life – but we should not be too quick to translate this phrase ‘eternal life’ into something that is less Jewish, and more Platonic, suggesting simply an endless state of disembodied post-mortem bliss. In the first-century Jewish world, the phrase meant primarily ‘the life of the age to come’, that new age where heaven and earth have crashed together, in which wrongs would be righted, sins forgiven and God would be all in all. That is precisely what Jesus was claiming to offer. And he was claiming that, despite the pressure among his contemporaries to seek a Maccabean-style solution to their present plight, that God had ensured that some at least would follow him and find thereby the narrow way that would lead to life. In this, as in all things, Jesus and the Father were always one.
Grace and peace.
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday); John 10:27-30
Radio reflection also available. Video reflection: Dan Stevers, Shepherd
Mass of the Lord’s Supper – a reflection on the person of Jesus who spends so much of his life eating meals with all the wrong kinds of people. Tonight we are invited to allow this meal to transform – not only the bread into his body and the wine into his blood – but also that we may be transformed as well.
Recorded at St Paul’s AP (6mins 27secs)
Although the idea of journey is not as strong in the Gospel of Mark as it is in Luke, the disciples have still been following Jesus along the way for many kilometres now. And still they are struggling to make sense of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him on the road. Now that their journey is almost ended, they meet another blind beggar outside of the town. This man is called Bartimaeus and he manages to attract the wrong kind of attention by shouting out after Jesus for mercy. It is enough to make Jesus stop and call the man to him. The voices of the crowd that had been asking him to be quiet now change to voices of affirmation and courage.
The faith of Bartimaeus becomes clear. He doesn’t wait for the healing to throw off his protection as a beggar from the cold and the elements – and indeed his whole identity and purpose. No more waiting, no more confusion: he throws aside the cloak and jumps up and runs to Jesus, perhaps still with the cry for mercy upon his lips.
Jesus wants to know what his deepest desire is – so even if it is abundantly clear what this man’s need really is, Jesus takes the time to ask him the obvious question: what do you want me to do for you? Perhaps the question is necessary because Jesus knows that if he does this for Bartimaeus that his whole life will change. Perhaps his question is really – do you want to give up begging and find a completely new way to live, a new job, new friends, a new place to live?
Bartimaeus becomes in his simple determination to see and follow the Lord an example of faith and discipleship. Unlike the disciples who in their blindness wanted glory, prestige and power, this man wants to know the only one who can save him. He is able to give the right answer to this question. What about us? What do you want Jesus to do for you?
Journey Radio Program
Sunday 30, Year B. Mark 10:46-52
Today we get to reflect on everyone’s favourite topic: divorce. The verse before our Gospel begins today provides a little more context when it tells us that Jesus was travelling with his disciples and the crowds down through the Jordan Valley into Judea and onto Jerusalem. When the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask the question: “is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife?” we need to read this against the historical and political background of the time. The Jordan river should remind us immediately of the ministry of John the Baptiser – who had recently been executed for daring to challenge the so-called King Herod on his illicit second marriage with his brother’s first wife. So the question is a test, because it was so politically charged. In general, no one was very concerned about divorce. It was at the time of Jesus generally accepted and practiced within Jewish society. What was disputed was the exact grounds for a divorce.
There were three schools of thought and Rabbinical interpretation concerning the only passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that deals with the question of divorce (although other passages do condemn the practice) – namely the first 4 verses in Deuteronomy 24. This somewhat obscure passage suggests that a man was able to provide a decree of divorce to his wife if he found something objectionable about her. It then indicates that she is free to enter into a second marriage, but that if the second marriage ends, she is not able to remarry her first husband. This seems to be a protection for the woman; her first dowry would have been kept by her first husband in the divorce; if her second husband died, then she would keep the second dowry, but the first husband may only be offering to marry her to get his hands on this money – so don’t let him.
What this ‘something objectionable’ or others translate this as ‘sexual immorality or indecency’ was was the subject of much discussion. There were three major schools of thought. The first is associated with the generally hard-line and conservative Rabbi Shammai who indicates that the only grounds for divorce is infidelity by the woman. The more liberal leaning Rabbi Hillel (who Jesus usually follows in his interpretations) provides an example that could be a cause for divorce: if the woman spoils a dish while cooking! An even more extreme example is offered by Rabbi Aqiba who says that the only thing necessary for a divorce is if the husband finds another woman to be more beautiful. So, even though Jesus normally follows the thought of Hillel (as also does St Paul), in this instance, once he is able to speak to the disciples alone (and not the crowd) he follows Shammai and even places significant restrictions on that teaching. He indicates that the only reason that Moses even provides the exception for divorce was because the people were so unteachable, or more literally, have hard-hearts (or uncircumcised hearts), which in the Greek is sklerokardia – which, by the way, could make a great insult if you are in the market for such things – as in, Richard, why are you being so sklerokardic?!
Recorded at St Paul’s (9.30am)
Sunday 27, Year B. Mark 10:2-12
We have fairly appropriate readings today to help me to reflect on my new role as parish priest as I am formally installed into this ministry today. The Gospel has some very strong reminders about service and humility. The Gospel of Mark continues to highlight the deficiencies of these clueless disciples who continue to get things wrong. Not that we should be too hard on them perhaps – Jesus is making things a little harder than he may have by telling them to keep looking below the surface level of things that he says to draw out the hidden kingdom message in his sayings – but then he says things that are clearly meant to be read only on the literal surface level. Once again the Lord continues along the way towards Jerusalem – no longer working multitudes of mighty deeds and signs, but now concentrating on teaching the disciples. Once again he tells them about the passion that awaits him in the days ahead, telling them that he will be ‘handed over’ (paradidotai) – a word that will punctuate the narrative another 15 times. As he tries to get through to these slow disciples, he patiently sits down in the way of a Rabbi to offer further examples to them – taking a small child (talya’ in the Aramaic that he spoke – which is the same word used for a servant) as a sign of what they should be.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 7.30am (9min)
The Gospel of Mark is both the shortest and earliest of the gospels written. It is also perhaps the most primal and simple of the gospels lacking some of the sophistication of the later offerings. But scholars have discovered a new appreciation for this gospel and its more raw and basic presentation of both Jesus and of his first followers. The disciples are regularly presented as a rather dense lot who ask the wrong kind of questions and keep getting things wrong. But I like it because the disciples are so often like I am!
We arrive today in the very centre of the Gospel – not just because we are in the middle of chapter 8 of this 16 chapter Gospel – but because there is a stark turning point. It is not as clear as the similar point in the Gospel of Luke (9:51) where Jesus “resolutely points his face towards Jerusalem” but true to Mark’s style it is clearly present. Until this point there have been miracles upon miracles as the mighty works of Jesus to heal the sick, cast out demons and bring order to the chaos of nature have helped to frame the question of “who is this man?” – now we are ready to begin to answer it. First the disciples will report what the crowds are saying, then Peter will have a go, then Jesus himself will explain what it means to follow him along the way that this journey will take as he begins to move from the very north of Israel down into the heartland of Judaism on the way to Jerusalem.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am (13min)
Sunday 24, Year B. Mark 8:27-35
We are told in the Gospel today that Jesus made his way from the region of Tyre towards the Sea of Galilee to continue his ministry. The bizarre thing is that Mark tells us that Jesus goes by way of Sidon and the Decapolis region. Now Tyre is on the southern coast of Lebanon, and the city still exists today. It is not far from the border with modern Israel. From there to Galilee, you would normally travel in a south-east direction, because that is the straightest and most direct route. So you might presume that Sidon is on the way from Tyre to Galilee. But this assumption would be wrong (cue the saying – sometimes, to assume only makes an ass out of u and me). In fact, Sidon is the completely opposite direction – heading north further up the Lebanese coast, going towards the modern city of Beirut. To make matters even worse, to go from there to the Decapolis region takes Jesus even further out of his way. Most of the ten Greek-speaking, mostly Roman cities/towns of this region were located on the eastern side of the Jordan valley, well away from Galilee. Again, rather odd direction and navigation skills being demonstrated by the good Lord today. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the encounter between Jesus and the so-called Syrophoenician woman which takes place immediately before our Gospel today, but which we have skipped over in this cycle of readings. You may remember that she begged the Lord for help to cast out an unclean spirit from her sick daughter. But Jesus initially had dismissed her, comparing her cruelly to a dog, adding that his mission is only to the children of Israel. But she has one of the all-time great retorts that even the house dogs are able to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table – and she is given her wish. Perhaps it is the encounter with this woman that provokes Jesus to take the long way back to Galilee, to see if there are others with similar strong faith. We don’t know. All we know is that somewhere along this journey a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus and he brings healing to the man in this carefully described very physical healing.
Recorded at St Paul’s, Albion Park – my first weekend in this new parish as Pastor. All three Masses are available.
After fifteen weeks of journeying through the seasons of Lent and Easter, we return today to what is often prosaically called “Ordinary Time” but which I prefer to call the Season of Growth or the Season of Discipleship. In the Gospel today from Mark we are reminded of this when Jesus tells two of his familiar parables about seeds, soil and growth.
Even when the beginnings are so small as to be almost hidden there is one thing that is always certain – at least in the economy of God’s life – and that is a rich harvest. The farmer scatters the seeds on the ground and night and day the seed sprouts and grows. This doesn’t mean that we should just sit back and allow God to do all the work! No, the image of a certain harvest promises that even when our efforts to announce the goodness of God’s kingdom may appear to be fruitless or insignificant, we should not be discouraged or give up. Despite the church buying into the modern obsession with statistics, the only evidence of success that we need is that the harvest will arrive.
In a similar way the parable of the mustard seed reminds us that kingdom is not about the huge and flashy greatness that other kingdoms attempt to build for themselves. The mustard bush is enough to provide shade for the birds of the sky.
In our more sophisticated experience of church, it can be tempting to imagine that we have to be success-driven and strive for the great and mighty events and seek power and influence. These parables should provide us with a warning that we cannot look down on the small beginnings and simple devotion of people. One person’s vocation is always precious, or a few people meeting together to seek God’s will for their life or to plan and pray often herald the beginning of some beautiful new initiative that is also part of God’s plan for new creation.
The challenge remains for us to discern how to be the best kingdom-workers and kingdom-explainers that we possibly can be in our own day.
Grace and peace.
We had the Mission Sunday Annual appeal this weekend, so only a short homily was preached to allow time to watch the Catholic Mission video and take up the collection. A Journey Radio reflection is also available.
Sunday 11, Year B.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that has endured across the centuries of the Christian Church. The image of the young Jesus as the shepherd bringing home the stray or wounded lamb has been found on the walls of the catacombs, and a statue of the Good Shepherd has also been found dating back to only 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, despite its popularity – or perhaps because of its popularity – there have been two unfortunate elements that have entered into our understanding of this image.
The first is the propensity of Christian ministers to adopt the title of pastor and this understanding for ourselves. But what is clear in the Gospel of John 10 is that there is only one Shepherd who is noble or beautiful (better translations than ‘good’) and that is Jesus the Messiah. All Christians are as sheep in comparison to the Lord – which means we are all rather stupid, smelly and tend to wander away and get lost. All of us need to be pastored by the Lord.
The second has also always been a problem, but with shrinking church attendance and membership is becoming more problematic. This is the tendency to understand the image of the shepherd in very safe and friendly terms. We picture the shepherd as the one who leads the sheep back into the nice, safe and warm sheepfold of the church. But in fact the image that is used at the beginning of John 10 is of Jesus leading the sheep out of the sheepfold into the broad and good lands that lie beyond the safety of the church yard. It is out in the wilderness that the church really needs the safety and protection of the Lord.
Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year B. Recorded at St Col’s (Vigil and 9am)
“In the name of Jesus, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all the nations.”
The readings this week again invite us to reflect on sin and repentance so that our hearts may burn with love. Jesus the just one, is the sacrifice that takes our sins away – not only ours, but the whole world’s. (I Jn 2:2) Peter in his declaration to the people says that we must now repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out. (Acts 3:19) But both sin and this act of repentance are very often misunderstood. We might imagine that to repent is to acknowledge that we have already done something wrong, which we regret, and so we now commit ourselves to living in a new way. We probably know that the word that is used in the Gospels for repentance is the word metanoia which means to change our minds and literally to do an about face and turn around, facing an entirely new direction. But what is perhaps not necessarily very clear is what the new direction should be!
The Gospel story of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem and being joined by the (unknown) Jesus on the road who shared and taught from the scriptures about the suffering Messiah provides us some insights. We note that as they walk along, their hearts begin to burn within them as Jesus shares from the scriptures, but it is only when he begins to share a meal with them that their eyes are opened and they finally recognise him. It seems that a lot of what is going on in this passage is the true sense of repentance. Indeed as a result of this encounter the disciples literally do an about face and run back towards Jerusalem to share their story with the other disciples.
What Jesus was able to open up to them is the truth that needs to also be opened up to us. Last week I spoke about the truth that a better way to understand sin is as a theological problem more than a moral problem. Sure we experience sin morally – in the many ways that we fail to live in the fulness of God’s new life. But the more that I experience my own sin and that of others in the confessional, the more I realise that the sins that we know and are ashamed about in our lives are essentially the symptoms of something deeper. The moral failures in our lives are a pointer to a failure to truly repent. But what does this mean?
Perhaps the best way of appreciating this is to recall that within the Thomistic tradition, there is an understanding that within us there are two souls, often referred to as the little soul and the great soul. At any given moment in our lives we are either identifying with one or the other. If I identify with my little soul, I will feel bitter and angry. I know that I am living from my little soul when I am petty, afraid, aware of my hurts and being abused. If I relate to life from my little soul, then I will be impatient, short-sighted, despairing and constantly looking to feed my addictions.
But on the other hand, every one of us has a great soul. If I allow my great soul to reign within me, then I will be a different person altogether. As Fr Ron Rolheiser puts it: “I am relating out of my great soul at those moments when I am overwhelmed by compassion, when everyone is brother or sister to me, when I want to give of myself without concern of cost, when I am able to carry the tensions of life without a breakdown in my chastity, when I would willingly die for others, and when my arms and my heart would want nothing other than to embrace the whole world and everyone in it.”
Every day we are given the choice: will I live under the influence of my small petty soul; or will I choose to allow the grace and mercy of the Lord wash over me and call me to respond to him from the fullness of his creation in my great soul.
Easter, Sunday 3, Year B. Recorded at St Col’s Parish (9am).
Acts 3:13-15; I John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48