There is a verse in our Gospel today that gives us an interesting detail: People were coming and going in such great numbers to see Jesus and the Twelve that the Lord and his apostles had no opportunity even to eat. If Christ and his disciples had not eaten, then chances are the people who wanted to see them had not eaten also. The vast crowd would later walk a considerable distance to follow Jesus and his apostles to a deserted place. By that time, everyone must have been more than just a bit hungry.
When Jesus saw the great throng waiting for him, his heart was moved with pity. Surrounded by so many hungry people, what did Jesus do? “They were like sheep without a shepherd; and Jesus began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Teach them? But we have already established that the people were hungry!
Jesus would later miraculously feed this multitude – and this we will hear about in next week’s Gospel. But he did not just give them more food than they could eat. He taught them first. Why? Could teaching be more important than feeding?
What makes a good shepherd? Certainly, Jesus could see that the people were hungry. But he taught them first because Jesus could sense their deeper hunger. And so he taught them about the God whom they were searching for, the kingdom that was always at hand and ready to welcome them, and what they must do to enter it. This is the first mark of a good shepherd: That he or she knows what people really need.
Tomorrow, we will hear a presentation of the current state of our nation. As we listen to this report, maybe we can also ask deeper questions: What are our deeper hungers? More security? Better inflation control? Modern trains, wider roads, soaring infrastructure? What does our nation really need today?
What else makes a good shepherd? If Jesus had just fed the people and if Jesus had just continued feeding them, he would have been very popular. In fact, next week, when we hear about Jesus multiplying loaves and fish to feed more than five thousand, we will also hear about the people wanting to make Jesus king. But Jesus will withdraw from them. He did not come to be this type of king. He did not come just to feed people. He also came to teach.
If you just feed people, you will make them dependent on dole outs, and you will end up making them weak. If you also teach people, then you can help them stand not just on their own two feet but help them stand on more solid ground. And you can help them be strong. A good shepherd is not concerned about what will increase his or her strength but about what will make the sheep stronger.
People will open their mouths for food but will not always open their minds and hearts for what you may have to teach them. But being a good shepherd also means being ready to be unpopular if it means being able to bring the sheep to more verdant pastures in the end.
What else makes a good shepherd? Sun Tzu’s The Art of War promotes the military strategy to divide and conquer. This tactic may work for generals in the battlefield, but the Bible proclaims the exact opposite for the shepherd who wants to be good and godly. In our first reading today, we hear God say through the prophet Jeremiah (23:1-3), “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture… I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.”
A good shepherd unites and brings together. He or she does not stoke division but rather heals what has been separated. Two years removed from one of the most contentious elections in recent memory – an election that saw even family members “unfriending” each other – I think we are still wary and weary of people with different opinions. We do not need to give up our convictions, but what can we do to be more respectful of each other so that we can take steps towards dialogue? What can we do to be good shepherds who gather and not scatter? Maybe this is part of what our nation needs in our current state.
The SONA tomorrow may focus our attentions on the shepherds in government, but lest we forget, though we may not bear the responsibility of public office, God continues to send people into our lives who need shepherding. Do we just feed them, or are we brave enough to teach them also? What do we teach them with our actions?
Jesus saw the vast crowd like sheep without a shepherd. His compassion moved him to teach them though he must have been tired and hungry himself. More than words – which our Gospel today does not record – I think if I were in the crowd that day, this would have been the lesson I would have learned. Compassion. Jesus could have gotten back into his boat to rest or taken something to eat first, but he ministered to the people instead because he felt their need. So he stayed with them. In the end, maybe this is what makes a good shepherd.
Leadership principles talk about the values of communication, consultation, consolidation, and so on. Our Gospel today reminds us of compassion. How can we as shepherds teach others about compassion? Perhaps this is what our country we really needs.