Feeding the Sheep
Reflections on forthcoming Mass readings by Tom and April Hoopes.
We’ll look at two Sundays this week, since our next issue will be July 26. July 19 and July 26 are the 16th and 17th Sundays in Ordinary Time (Year B, Cycle 1).
July 19 Readings
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23: 1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
By telling the story of Christ through the metaphor of sheep, today’s readings teach two important, paradoxical lessons: the great humility we should feel and the great dignity God saw in us.
First, the humility. A friend who works with sheep has told us how much trouble they are — because they are so stupid.
There are wild horses and wild goats, but our sheep could never survive without humans. Sheep can be easily tricked, they don’t learn quickly or consistently, and left to their own devices, they will wander to their deaths.
It’s easy to object to being called a sheep. We want to think of ourselves as extraordinary creatures, and, compared to other animals, we are. But compared to God, and even the angels, we’re far from extraordinary.
We’re easily tricked by our appetites and led astray by our passions. We repeat the same mistakes over and over and become the slaves of sin. When fellow sheep are our shepherds, we suffer from a new problem: bad shepherds.
But the ideal in today’s Psalm — “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” — is realized in today’s Gospel.
In it, Christ invites his apostles — future shepherds — to “Come away by yourselves and rest.” The crowds seek them out, because they are like “sheep without a shepherd.” So Christ shows the apostles how he himself will shepherd them.
This is an extraordinary thing: the fulfillment of the prophecy in today’s first reading. God himself decided to shepherd his people. He took upon himself the task of chasing strays, prodding the reluctant, tolerating human obstinacy, cluelessness and thoughtless cruelty.
His shepherds are still imperfect, but now Christ, the Good Shepherd is available to all through the sacraments. With him as our shepherd, we are living Psalm 23. We meet Christ in the “restful waters” of baptism; we are anointed by him in confirmation, holy orders and the anointing of the sick, and we are given his overflowing cup in the Eucharist. With him as our shepherd, what should we fear?
July 26 Readings
2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145: 10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15
Today’s Gospel is about the multiplication of the loaves. Today’s readings give some indication about God’s “personality.”
1. God notices our needs.
We know he has wise spiritual lessons for us, but we figure that he doesn’t really understand us — real-life stuff like dinner is up to us.
In this Gospel, Jesus is the one who realizes that the crowd needs to eat — and provides. “The hand of the Lord feeds us,” as the Psalm puts it, “he answers all our needs.”
2. God likes leftovers.
We have all seen two modes in hosting others. First, there are those who never seem to make quite enough to go around. Second, there are those who seem to always make more than you can quite finish.
God is definitely that second kind of host. “For thus says the Lord,” as the first reading puts it, “‘They shall eat, and there shall be some left over!’”
3. We’re God’s waiters.
We know the concept that we are spiritual envoys of God, bearing his message. But today’s readings drive home that we’re also God’s waiters, bringing his food.
When God multiplies barley loaves in the first reading, it’s through Elisha.
When Jesus feeds the multitudes in other versions of this Gospel, it’s through the hands of the apostles.
When we serve food at table, we are doing what they did: distributing the food God provides for his people to eat. This is, after all, why we say grace before meals.