Three of this week’s four readings — see here, Track 2 — involve what are by now quite familiar analogies to shepherdry. The most famous, of course, is the 23rd Psalm, which has become so familiar as to seem almost trite — which is a shame, because it truly is a beautiful, poetic expression of faith, well deserving of the veneration it traditionally has received.

That psalm, of course, as well as most other Biblical metaphors involving sheep and shepherds, cast God (in at least one of His three persons) as the shepherd and us as the sheep. That makes sense, of course.

But look closely at the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. In it, the Lord is condemning the earthly shepherds who “scatter the sheep of [His] pasture.” He is not the shepherd here, but the owner; earthly leaders are the shepherds. As such, they have responsibility to help care for those who are placed under their protection.

We could follow that thought to say something about today’s political leaders, but that’s not where this reflection is going. Instead, let’s consider the underlying message for what it means to our own lives.

It is undeniable that Jeremiah primarily was heaping criticism upon the Jewish leaders of his time and place. But we are raised to believe, I think quite rightly, that The Word of God, even when it is rooted in a particular history, is nonetheless meant to transcend time and place and speak to all mankind for all time. The lessons we are to take from Jeremiah, then, are not that leaders failed back in whatever century BC he was writing, but that responsibilities lovingly laid on us by God must be met, always and everywhere.

In all of our lives there are things for which we are responsible: people who need our help, charities that need cheerful support, jobs that must be handled, personal obligations that must be met in order that we not leave others in the lurch. In short, all of us must “shepherd” (as a verb) some responsibilities to fruition, or at least give our utmost efforts to do so.

In the Gospel, Jesus and His disciples desperately desired some rest, some time to replenish themselves physically and spiritually — but the need of the people in the surrounding areas was greater: Multitudes went by foot to where Jesus’ group intended to set up camp.

And Jesus, tired though he was, “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and he resumed his ministry forthwith.

We all have ministries, whether or not we call them by that appellation. We all have responsibilities which, without our care, will scatter and be lost, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Like our Savior, in whatever way we can, weak though we may be when compared with Him, we must step up, with compassion, and tend our flocks.

 

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