In contemporary ecumenical dialogues, today’s second reading is used most frequently to set forth the ideal of the visible oneness for which we long. How do peoples who are separated become united? Today’s readings emphasize the role of compassionate leaders in the work of reconciliation. In the New Testament texts the focus is on the person of Christ as the one who accomplishes oneness.
The first reading is an indictment of Israel’s leaders, who allowed the people to be “scattered” and “driven away” into exile. The contrast is great between their lack of care for the “flock” and God’s complete provision for the people expressed in Psalm 23. The Divine Shepherd leads the “flock” with endless overflowing goodness and kindness to plentiful pasture, abundant food and rest from worry, and accompanies them even in the most frightening times. In the Gospel we see this same tender care embodied in Jesus. He attends to the disciples’ need to be replenished after their first missionary journey. At the same time he also attends to the needs of the vast crowd, for whom he has heartfelt compassion.
In a culture where many ministers fall prey to the pressure of responding to nonstop demands 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it may seem that the returning Apostles in today’s Gospel are longing for an overdue rest. The Gospel context offers another possible interpretation.
The Apostles have just returned from their first attempts at teaching and expelling evil spirits, and it is likely that their report to Jesus is an enthusiastic retelling of all the marvels they found themselves able to do. Jesus invites them to a deserted place, the kind of place where he would customarily go apart to pray (Mk 1:35) and where one meets face to face both one’s temptations and the divine assistance (Mk 1:12-13). Perhaps the disciples were in danger of becoming a bit too enamored of their own abilities to perform wonders. The deserted place will help them experience more deeply the divine compassion that calls them into mission and that is the source of all they are able to do. From their ability to receive divine compassion in their own neediness, they become able to be the compassion of God toward others. Just so, in any work of reconciliation, the ability to experience compassion, that is, to “feel with” the other from the other’s point of view, is crucial to moving toward oneness.
The author of Ephesians elaborates how “the dividing wall of enmity” between Jewish Christians (“those who were near”) and Gentile Christians (those “who once were far off”) is broken down. Christ himself is that peace which brings unity (v. 14). He makes peace by the costly giving of himself that puts enmity to death (v. 15), and finally, he preached peace (v. 16).
For creating unity in our own day, we can emulate this same pattern. We start with contemplative dwelling with the source of our peace, allowing ourselves to be transformed into the very peace we desire. Second, making peace is costly; it demands crossing over dividing walls to listen deeply and with empathy to the “other,” and being willing to engage in long processes of dialogue, clarifying where we have common ground and where we yet differ, and praying for the guidance of the Spirit to find the way through the impasses.
One thing that should not be misunderstood in v. 15 is that Jesus never “abolished” the Law. In Mt 5:17, Jesus insists he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Similarly, Paul, when wrestling with questions concerning Jewish believers and Gentile believers in his Letter to the Romans, says, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (3:31).
Eph 2:15 is speaking about the difficult negotiations in which the first Christians engaged in order to find common ground that could lead to unity between Gentile Christians and Law-observant Jewish Christians. The final prong of the process is preaching peace, that is sharing with others the good news of Christ’s gift of reconciliation both through our words and actions. Ephesians gives us hope that through arduous work and prayer for unity, we can become one people, created as “one new person” in Christ, reconciled “in one body,” having access in one Spirit to the one God.