In narratives there are transitions and then there are transitions. Some are subtle shifts that merely serve to get us to the next dramatic event. Other transitions are far more substantive, far more powerful. Today’s Gospel reading is an instance of the latter. The Twelve had been preaching the kingdom and performing healings and exorcisms by Jesus’ authority. The next event in Jesus’ ministry will be the feeding of the five thousand. In the Gospel today we find the disciples returning and Jesus taking them to a deserted place to rest. But the crowd finds him. It is the presence of this large crowd in such a deserted place that occasions the feeding.
Here is what makes the transition powerful: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” This single sentence expresses a great deal. The Old Testament is replete with the metaphorical identification of Israel with a flock of sheep in need of a shepherd’s guidance and care. Today’s first reading is a perfect example. Jeremiah speaks words of challenge to Judah’s current and former kings: “Woe to you shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” Then he speaks words of comfort and hope to the people: “I myself will bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply... I will raise up a righteous shoot to David... This is the name they give him: ‘The Lord our justice.’”
This prophecy is not unique but part of a broad expectation and hope for a messiah who would reconstitute David’s throne in justice and righteousness. Those prophets who were inspired to envision this included Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Micah, which is quite an authoritative group. Given such prophetic fuel, one can imagine why interpretations of Jesus could blaze passionately. Jesus indeed fulfilled these prophecies, though not always in ways the people (and perhaps the Old Testament prophets) imagined. David’s political reign was of no interest to Jesus—“My kingdom does not belong to this world” (Jn 18:36)—and obviously even today his rule of justice and righteousness is still waiting to be fully realized.
Jesus turned out to be a different kind of Son of David. Instead of reconstituting a temporal rule, his interest was in an eternal one. And though he called, and continues to call, for justice that is present and concrete, the fullness of that justice and righteousness will come only at the end. We are a pilgrim people, the church teaches, ever on a path of penance and renewal, ever taking on the appearance of this passing world (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Nos. 8, 48).
Who is our shepherd during this pilgrimage? How does he guide us? Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, “his heart was moved with pity.” “Pity” would be better translated as “compassion,” which gives us a sense of suffering with another (com, “with”; passion, “suffering”). The Greek literally means “moved from the guts,” the part of the body thought of as the center of emotions. When Jesus saw the people, he was moved to the core.
Jesus then started to teach them and subsequently feed them. In doing so, he attended to both their spiritual and their physical needs. And his care radiated from a place of deep compassion. This is the true shepherd.
Our second reading is part of a continuing meditation on unity, the great theme of Ephesians. What kept the Gentiles far from God and at odds with Jews has been destroyed by Christ. Christ “broke down the dividing wall of enmity through his flesh…that he might create in himself one new person in place of two, thus establishing peace…through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.” How far will the compassion of our shepherd go? There is no end, for he has given his life to ensure his good shepherd’s care.