Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 18, 2021
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44
Context: Just starting the reading at Jeremiah 23:1, we might be inclined to interpret the words as directed towards the priests as shepherds of God’s people. However if you start at Chapter 21 you see this is more of a political issue than a religious one (though the religious leaders will be addressed later!). How does this contextualize our hearing of the 23rd psalm, where Jesus becomes not just the tender-but-powerless shepherd but an actual authority figure we must actually obey? We see the Good Shepherd seeking to tend to the needs of his disciples in the Gospel, but that is put on hold when He is moved with compassion for the larger crowds around them. Jesus is then able to instruct and demonstrate to his disciples the heart of a truly good shepherd, one who doesn’t simply send people away when it is inconvenient or tiring but gives of himself constantly and fully that they might have life.
Jeremiah 23:1-6 – The shepherds referred to here are political, not religious in nature. They are the descendants of King David who have sat on the throne over the years and rather than binding God’s people together in faithful trust and obedience to God, have led the people astray and into God’s judgment and impending exile. What human leaders can’t and won’t do God will do fully himself. There is an equal focus in this section between criticism and promised judgment for those who do not carry out their vocational roles as political leaders faithfully, and reassurance to those who suffer under the ill-conceived or ill-intentioned whims of their leaders. We do NOT look to the political authorities of the world as our ultimate hope. We pray they do their jobs faithfully and well, in accordance with the Word of God and in love for their constituents. But even the best of them will be flawed and fail to some extent. But there will come a time when we are once again ruled directly by our God rather than flawed intermediaries.
Psalm 23 – Perhaps the Old Testament reading helps us to see the pastoral language here as being more far-reaching than we typically think. While we revel in the provision of our Good Shepherd, how willing are we at times to follow where He leads? How often are we inclined to evaluate the pastures He asks us to lie down in, preferring to seek out other pastures more to our liking? How prone are we to accepting the still waters He provides but still grousing about this that or the other that isn’t to our liking? How willingly do we accept his leading down paths that glorify him and his Word when the culture around us deems such paths as too narrow and restrictive? And how often do we allow the promises of our Good Shepherd to be eclipsed by our fear of death, so that our fear is what overwhelms us and drives our decisions and actions? The Good Shepherd is good. We are called to trust this not blindly, but by the evidence of this in our own lives, in the community of faith we are placed in, and in the Word of God.
Ephesians 2:11-22 – The lectionary skipped over the last part of Chapter 1, Paul’s hymn of glory and praise and thanksgiving to God the Father for his gifts to us through Jesus Christ. It’s kind of a shame, because reading the end of Chapter 1 might better prepare us for the shocking disjunct of the start of Chapter 2. God the Father has poured out his grace and gifts not onto deserving and obedient children but to the stillborn, to you and I born dead in sin and in our willful continuance of sinfulness. How great are God’s gifts when seen in this fullness! How much better can and should we appreciate who we are in Christ, since we could do nothing to merit such blessing! And how much better might we appreciate one another then, as fellow-inheritors of such riches. We are not strangers and aliens (2:19), to remain aloof and distant from one another. We are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (v.19). This is how we should consider one another and treat one another, admonishing as necessary but always within the bonds of love given to us in Christ rather than generated from our own resources. We are capable of loving others and are called to do so by the blood of Christ, and it is not a decision we get to make but a reality we are to live out in obedience.
Mark 6:30-44 – We see the loving heart of the Good Shepherd expressed in action. His awareness of his disciples’ needs and his insistence those needs be tended to. His compassion for the crowds who came out to him. Handling the necessity of ordering priorities in order to tend to the massive needs of the people. His firmness in modeling care and love for people when his disciples would have rather not seen them as their own responsibility. And not least, his lesson that things impossible by our own means are hardly impossible through the power of God.
But we might easily imagine how his disciples felt! Here was Jesus, changing plans on them. Here was Jesus, putting their needs second to the needs of an anonymous crowd. Here was Jesus, going the extra mile and leaving them all extra exhausted. Here was Jesus, seemingly unaware and unprepared for the dilemma of feeding a crowd at the end of a long day.
How often does our limited viewpoint keep us from focusing on what God is doing, preferring instead to focus on our own needs or preferences? Only in hindsight do we see these times for what they are – demonstrations of the grace and glory, the love and power of our Creator God! In hindsight we are awed! In the moment we are more than likely petulant and ungrateful and irritable.
Yet our Good Shepherd continues to love such obstinate, short-sighted and untrusting sheep as we! God truly deserves all glory and honor and praise that He would continually forgive, continually insist on including us in his plan of salvation for all creation!