Our Sunday readings this week take us deep into the connection between contemplation and shepherding. They show us why our shepherds need to be contemplatives – but they also show us why we who seek the spiritual life need also to seek our neighbors, and children, and families.
Our reading from Mark states the theme. Jesus’s words to the apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” are a classic call to the contemplative life.
But those whom he calls are apostles (just “returned from their mission”) and “many saw them going and recognized them,” even “arrived ahead of them.” My children seem to do the same, every time I pick up my spiritual reading.
But the next sentence is a classic call to the apostolic life: “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Is this how I behave, when my children interrupt my prayer?
The other two readings take us deeper into the Gospel image.
The reading from Jeremiah opens with a roar: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” Later he says, “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.”
The last clause is the key: “and you have not attended to them.” How do the shepherds “destroy and scatter the sheep”? How do they “drive them away”? A flock of sheep does not need to be driven away. They need attention. They need to be gathered.
In short, the shepherds are guilty not because of what they have done, but because what they have not done. He who does not gather, scatters. The shepherd who neglects his flock is guilty of driving them away.
So God goes on, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” (Notice that the sheep will be alright –it’s those who ought to be shepherding them who will suffer most.) God will do what they did not do: gather the sheep. “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them”: he will gather them by gathering gatherers.
Then the metaphor shifts, from shepherd to king: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus and David are shepherd kings. But the true shepherd of men does more than gather: he deals wisely with them, brings justice and righteousness, acts like a king.
Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, defines our own moral life as participation in Jesus’s kingship. We are called to help Jesus bring wisdom and justice and righteousness to the world. If we don’t, we are like shepherds who scatter their flocks – and like sheep who fail to follow their good shepherd.
Jesus calls us to share in his care for his people, to enter deeply into his heart. Our reading from Ephesians takes us into that heart.
“He is our peace.” He “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians is about the unity of the Church. It illustrates that unity by the unity between Jews and Gentiles; in our reading, too, it sees the ultimate peace as the possibility of these two enemies becoming one Church.
But the point is not merely the unity of Jew and Gentile, but the unity of the heart of Christ itself. If even they can be united, Ephesians argues, we are all called to the unity of Christ.
“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” says Paul, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” This sounds subversive. Is Jesus doing away with the Law?
Of course not. He is fulfilling the Law. But the point is, mere commandments are not enough to make peace. Jesus calls us not just to follow his Law, but to see the very heart of the Law, which is his heart – to go beyond Thou Shalt Not to love, and purity, and spiritual freedom. He calls us not just to grudgingly do what we are told, but to embrace the fullness of his will – and he makes new hearts in us, so that we may love with his heart.
“Through him both of us,” Jew and Gentile, and every kind of enemy, “have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
This is the real key to action and contemplation, coming away to a deserted place and having compassion on the sheep. What we seek in both is union with the heart of Jesus. Without contemplation we cannot receive that heart – but without compassion, our contemplation is proved false.
Where is Jesus calling you to receive his heart?