"You’re my best friend!” “You’re my favorite teacher!” “I love you more than anyone else in the world!” Who does not appreciate hearing sentiments like these? They tell us that we are special; they indicate that our particular uniqueness is recognized and valued. They bolster our sense of ourselves.
In the first reading for today, God assures the Israelites that they are special. This claim has bothered non-Israelites down through the ages. Did God really single one nation out of all the nations of the world? And if so, is that fair? Or does this bold claim come from the Israelites themselves? And if it does, what has given them the right to make it?
Clearly, the Israelites did maintain that they were God’s chosen people. Such a claim does not sound so arrogant when we realize that peoples throughout the ancient world worshiped their own patron god and made this claim in relation to that god. However, the claim takes on a different tenor when people believe that there is only one God, and that the one God has singled out one nation.
We must remember that the claim was made by a displaced people who had only shortly before been delivered from the oppressive control of a much stronger nation. Under these circumstances, it almost seems ludicrous for them to think like this. Why would God care about a rag-tag group of escaped slaves? But this is precisely the point of the reading. It is not that the Israelites were better because they were chosen, but that God chose people who were vulnerable.
The people described in the Gospel are also vulnerable; they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus “was moved with pity for them,” and for their sake he sent the Twelve “to drive [unclean spirits] out and to cure every disease and every illness.” Jesus’ concern for the needy is not limited to this passage. In last week’s Gospel he declared, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”
Jesus was certainly compassionate, but his concern for the needy was not simply this very important human sentiment. It was grounded in the covenant. Traces of this theology are present in the responsorial psalm, in which the shepherd theme is coupled with technical covenant language: “kindness” and “faithfulness.” There we see that the care that the shepherd shows the sheep stems from the covenant bond that binds them together. But this still does not explain why God seems to choose people whom society considers “losers.”
God made the covenant with the entire community of Israel, not merely with chosen individuals like Abraham or Moses. The human partners in the covenant are bound to one another as well as to God. Consequently, the covenant carries communal responsibilities. Therefore, if the community fails to care for its needy and vulnerable members, God, as the kind and faithful covenant partner, will side with them. Today’s readings call us to stand with the needy, not because we are generous, but because it is our responsibility as people covenanted to this God.