The father of a close Jesuit friend died shortly before Easter. A parade example of the greatest generation, he had lived a full, dedicated and colorful life, which had been captured in taped recollections by his adult grandchildren and encapsulated in an obituary. When he was a teenager near Rapid City, S.D., every summer he would go into the mountains to give his uncle Joe, a shepherd, a chance to come to town for his annual bath and shave (he said that the uncle had grown to look like the sheep). Once his uncle gave him a .45-caliber pistol to protect the sheep, which he fired out of curiosity only to have the sheep scatter in all directions. It took him half a day to round them up again. He certainly learned that sheep need prudent care and protection.
Images from the world of shepherds characterize today’s readings. The Gospel recounts the return of the disciples from their missionary journey (Mk. 6:7-13), and Jesus invites them to come away to a deserted place for rest, which ends up being short-lived as crowds stream out and arrive before them. Jesus then is moved with pity for them (literally has compassion on), for they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he then teaches them. This brief description is dense with biblical allusions. Like the people of Israel, the crowds are in the desert where they will receive not only miraculous food (next Sunday’s Gospel), but guidance and instruction, just as the Torah was given in the desert of Sinai.
In the Lectionary context, Jesus is to represent that good shepherd promised in Jeremiah, who will shepherd the sheep so that they need no longer fear and tremble. He will also be a Davidic king who shall do what is just and right in the land. Inevitably also Christian readers think of Jesus as the shepherd of Psalm 23.
Throughout church history, pastoring (shepherding) has been a prime image for leadership and care, and today pastoral ministry includes not only those named or ordained as pastors but many who follow different calls to serve and lead others. The readings may offer a handy job description. The pastor must be a person of compassion, which is the ability to feel deeply the suffering of others, to understand why they fear and tremble. And yet pastors are called to lead and govern wisely (Jer. 23:5), living the teaching they communicate. They are to guide people in right paths and are concerned about what is right and just in the land. Here is the continuing mandate to the church to be a voice for justice in the world. Finally, all the images convey a sense of involved and peaceful care and guidance. Today pastors prone to fire shots in the air may find the sheep scattered and difficult to round up.