Rarely does the first reading, let alone the first words of the first reading kind of stop me in my tracks as today’s did. The prophet Jeremiah begins with the word “WOE” – (which, in case you didn’t know, when a prophet says “woe” that’s never a good sign) so that immediately grabs my attention, but then even more as he continues: “WOE to the SHEPHERDS who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.” We know that scriptures have a historical reality and context but, as the eternal Word of God that transcends those things, it is also meant to be heard as being spoken fresh, anew here and now. So it’s hard not to hear that and immediately think of the gross, devastating, and infuriating scandals surrounding the former Archbishop of Newark, Mr. Theodore McCarrick. Which sadly that’s only the tip of the iceberg of criminal acts done by priests and bishops which are gut-wrenching to learn about… and in so many ways inhibited the Church and her mission over the last few years at a time when it’s more desperately needed. But even apart from those horrible headlines of these types of stories, as a priest of 22 years now, I’ve heard and experienced the hurt where a priest didn’t do something criminal but may have said and done things that are spiritually as devastating. Whether it was treating someone harshly, not responding to a need in a time of crisis… I just had a good friend who’s gone through a horribly painful divorce who did all this work for the Church to do an annulment process, who had a priest basically mislead (that might be too charitable, they in effect lied) to them about the process – which resulted in even more hurt and anger (and that’s not even speaking for my friend, that was just my reaction). On the other end of the spectrum – barely a week goes by that I don’t get an email from people showing me priests or Bishops who have corrupted or flat out ignored Church teaching, and asking me what do I think. Usually, what do I think – thank God I’m not a bishop…
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for 16TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME- July 18, 2021, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again… I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim
Whichever end of that awful spectrum, it’s hard not to hear those words from today’s scripture and have some of these men who’ve failed in such ways come to mind as we hear Jeremiah “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture says the Lord…you have scatted my sheep… driven them away… you have not cared for them…”
You can hear God’s anger through those words of the prophet.
Similarly, you can hear Jesus’ broken-heartedness in the Gospel as he sees the “shepherdless.”
What is striking to me in both, is God’s deep, deep love, for the flock – for his people… for all of us.
Because this really does get to the heart of God. When we sang the responsorial psalm,“The Lord is my Shepherd.” In the New Testament Jesus goes even further. In Him, God being Man, reveals himself to be “the Good Shepherd” that evokes an image of God near and dear to people. It’s one of the most revered and popular concepts we have of God. That title has inspired works of art. Musical pieces, poems were born of fascination with this concept: the Good Shepherd – the one who goes after “the lost” sheep. Yes, the Good, but somewhat reckless one who leaves the 99 in search of the one… On a commerce level, that doesn’t make any sense – 99 out of 100 is still good in the loss to safe and secure ratio… But the Good Shepherd isn’t interested in such ratios or good business sense. The Good Shepherd cares, he has compassion for the sheep left in his charge. He’s not thinking “that stupid sheep, why’d he get lost.” He’s thinking – my sheep is lost – he must be scared, he must be frightened, he might be hurt or harmed or in need. That’s what makes a Good Shepherd good…
In fact that’s not even far enough. When Jesus calls himself The Good Shepherd – He talks about it as the one who lays down His life for the sheep. In light of his life and death on the Cross, and in the confirmation of the resurrection – we know it to be true. We know Jesus says what he means and means what he says. He is indeed The Good Shepherd.
Where it gets challenging for us is that we’re 2,000 years removed from Jesus first uttering those words about himself – and from when he first entrusted that responsibility to others. When Jesus at that Last Supper instituted the Priesthood and shared it with the 12… When He at the Ascension commissioned them to go out and share His good news, His Gospel to the ends of the earth – He wasn’t asking them to be functionaries who simply repeated his actions to feed the M/masses (literally and figuratively) He wasn’t looking for them to simply impart information to the ends of the earth. He intended them to be shepherds of the massively growing flock. He expected them – He expects us to be Good Shepherds willing to follow His example and lay down their lives for His sheep.
And that’s why we hear God taking those failures, the failures on the part of the shepherds so personally in scripture. That’s why I believe He still does. One thought that bothered me in the past and keeps bothering me now is how these terrible things happen in the Church? I know we’re all human – we’re all prone to sinfulness and failures. But that aside – after the spectacular failures we’ve already gone through in the past; the massive media coverage and supposed reforms made in light of them; how is it possible that we’d have these things still happening?
One thought that came to my mind is that some in the Church weren’t trying to be “Good Shepherds” – they were trying to be “Perfect Shepherds.” What do I mean by that? They didn’t want to believe anything bad could happen in the Church. When stories were coming to the surface of very bad things happening, they didn’t want to believe them. When presented with overwhelming evidence that there were bad things happening, they’re motivation became to protect the Church (by trying to hide these bad things) and they justified it by pointing out all the authentically good things that the Church does. They wanted to keep this facade of strength; of being the epitome of goodness and love – tragically, foolishly acting in ways that were incredibly weak, fearful and in fact evil.
In the end, the only thing that these “perfectionist Shepherds” achieved was setting up a a perfect failure, because not only was all of that sinful, unethical, it’s not even remotely Christian at its core because, again, Jesus calls the shepherds to be “good” not “perfect.”
If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need Him. And humanity has long ago proved that – perfection- is not possible on our own. And when people in the Church lost focus that yes they were called to be Good Shepherds, but that they were not the Shepherd, the perfectly Good Shepherd – and that they needed Him, they had pushed Jesus out of the center, became the centers themselves and we see how well that all went.
I’m sharing this because it’s a good reminder that we have to be careful not to let that happen to us. I know how easy that can be for me as a priest as well… The minute it’s “my ministry” instead of it being His ministry that I’ve been entrusted with – and that is a sacred trust that I will be held accountable for – I have to realize I’m in danger of being sherpherdless… of falling for the lie of seeking perfection myself instead of goodness that comes from following Jesus Christ – listening to Him, going to Him for all my needs.
And that’s something I think the Lord wants all of us to recognize as well… how easy anyone into that same trap. Parents, out of a desire to protect their kids and not want their kids to experience any challenge or failure or stress can end up trying to present everything as being okay; there’s no problems and if there are problems Mom or Dad will fix them. Married couples where the husband or wife stop sharing with each other their failures, their fears because they want to appear to be “strong” for the other. Kids who end up fixating on a sport, a class, a passion or interest to the point that they get lost on simply looking for success, achievement, fame. These pursuits of perfection can creep in on all of us, whatever our state of life. And when they do, we have in a sense found a new shepherd for ourselves to follow: our own egos, our own pride, our own lies…
In Jesus Christ, God has raised up for us the “Good Shepherd.” He has called us – all of us, lay people, religious, clergy – to follow Him. It is only in doing that, following Him, that we will ever find healing for the many wounds we find both inside the walls of the Church and even more to a broken, needing world desperately looking for the Hope that Christ has lavishly shared. It is only in following Him that we can experience the priceless treasures of compassion and reconciliation that everyone of us as sinful human beings longs for. It is only in following Him, that the shepherdless have a voice to negotiate the rough, dangerous journey of this life into the place of peace and fulfillment that He has promised us.
Now, more than ever, may we beg the Lord to help us clear away all of the hurdles of fear, the obstacles of self-centeredness, and to attune our hearts and souls to His voice, leading us to live lives centered in what is right and just.