Mark 6:30-34, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Please allow me to tell you about a memoir I read over my retreat last week, entitled, Fr. Joe: The Man Who Saved My Life, by Englishman Tony Hendra, a prize-winning satirist, famous in the US and the UK. He created the National Lampoon Magazine, wrote for comedy theater and TV shows similar to Saturday Night Live and our Sic-o’clock-News (remember?), also acted in them. Power-holders were Tony’s fair game: Reagan, Thatcher, the Royals, politicians, the Church. The inhumanity and corruption of the powerful nauseated him, frosted though they were in “dignity of office,” so-called, or “religious sobriety.” So, Tony thought and wrote, spoke and joked, felt and fomented satire nearly all his life.
Nearly. Because what Tony really wanted to be was a monk. His shepherd was this funny, fatherly, heartwarming Fr Joseph Warrilow. All through high school, Tony’s only desire was to be a Benedictine the rest of his life. So, he volunteered at the monastery. He prayed with the monks, worked in their farm, slept over. Then, his parents forced him to do college. Tony reluctantly passed the difficult Cambridge University entrance exam and was even offered a scholarship for his excellent scores. But he didn’t want to go. He thought Fr Joe would support him. But shepherd said, “No, go. This is a gift from God, dear. Your vocation can wait. Go!” Tony promised himself and Fr. Joe that he’d just finish college and come right back to become a monk, forever! But then, the world of satire theater in Cambridge, plus the laughter it generated, all fascinated Tony so much that he finally said: “Change the world by being a monk? Nah. Change the world by laughter, yes!” Tony was one of those genius satirists who could still that precarious teeter between crassness and eloquence, and still be lap-slapping funny. So, that became his drug: laughter. He bought it with articulate deprecation, fluent insult, glib antagonism, all driven by his ardent disgust with authority. The prayerful lamb from Fr Joe’s pasture finally strayed into wilds of professional mockery, and excuse me, won awards for it! The world found Tony Hendra hilarious.
The crowd that Jesus likened to sheep without a shepherd, they really had shepherds. They had their rabbis, Temple priests, Pharisees, Sadducees: experts all (supposedly) in leading Israel to God. But they ended up shepherding only the churched, the ritually pure, the already devout, and loved a little too much each other’s unsullied company. Whereas there were still so many more people who needed pastoring, the shepherds couldn’t be bothered to reach them anymore, lest they be adulterated by dirty sheep. And Jesus took a swipe at them. He parodied them in his parables. He compared them to whitewashed tombs, called them hypocrites, liars, a nest of snakes, blind guides, and fools! Oh, Jesus wasn’t silent about bad shepherds, no. He went public on what he really thought of them, reserving for them his testiest metaphors.
But one by one, Tony’s professional partners distanced themselves from him. He and his work had become excessively offensive. It just wasn’t funny anymore (I guess like hearing someone say he’ll relieve himself into a volcano or cover the crater to stop it from erupting; not funny anymore). So, Tony drifted, and thankfully, drifted back to his now aging and ailing shepherd. In two questions, Fr Joe made his sheep realize how he had lost his soul fighting for freedom, human rights, dignity via professional mockery: “Have you changed the world, dear?” question number one. “No, Fr Joe. Not one bit.” “But doesn’t what you do change you, dear?” question number two. Prophetic words. Because in due course, Tony lost everything. And just when this very memoir was rising to best-seller status, his daughter, Jessica, she submitted an op-ed piece to the New York Times. Her dad’s memoir was missing something, said she: that he had molested her when she was twelve. Not funny anymore.
I imagine, Jesus must’ve also come to that threshold where he himself wondered what would change the world faster. Option one: would it be healing and feeding, comforting and teaching people about God, expelling demons, preaching about faith, hope, love, and non-violence? Or option two: would it be exposing the bad shepherds for who they really were; these self-perpetuating, duplicitous, elitist, power-starved bigots? The difference between many satirists and Jesus, however, sisters and brothers, is that Jesus did not turn into who disgusted him. To keep himself from turning, Jesus must’ve decisively chosen option one and lived by it every darn day, even when option two would’ve been more delicious. He’d be doing it for the sake of the lost sheep anyway…right?
I’ve seen it happen to me, sisters and brothers, and to my friends, to superiors, their counsellors and advisers, to whole communities even: we are shepherded not only by the good people we always admire, but also by those we constantly disparage. We become whom we love, yes. But we also become whom we hate, especially when we hate together. Focusing all his efforts to the lost sheep was a decision well made. Had Jesus consumed himself constantly inveighing against bad shepherds, he could’ve lost his soul to them, and turned instead into a man of hatred and prejudice, vindictiveness and rage (I guess, the same way a leader who hates killers turns into one).
What decision do we try to make every day to keep from turning into the bad shepherds we love to hate, sisters and brothers? Maybe Fr Manoling’s song can shepherd us along. Whenever there’s fear, we help allay it. Where there is pain, we help to heal. When people are wounded, we bind their wounds. If they’re hungry, we feed them. If there is hate, we confront. When yokes are heavy, we help release. Where there are captives, we set free. And when there’s anger, we try to appease. But what if in spite of all the good we’ve done, still, there are hearts we cannot move? Lord, give us hope, so that we keep making that decision to be your heart today anyway.
*Image from Pinay New Yorker blog