In our first reading we have one of the great prophecies of the Old Testament. It is a prophecy with many aspects. Jeremiah speaks these words in the midst of one of the most terrible events to affect the People of Israel –the Babylonian captivity.
At the time he is speaking already half of the population had already been dragged off to slavery in Babylon and it wouldn’t be long before the rest followed. Jeremiah in the clearest possible terms blames this misfortune on the leaders of the people, that is the civil and religious authorities. It is they who have sinned and allowed the flock to be scattered and he tells them that this neglect will most certainly be punished.
But then comes the extraordinary prophecy that God himself will gather his people together and return them to the pastures of Israel and he will raise up new shepherds who will truly guard his flock.
But even this is not enough because Jeremiah goes one step further and prophecies that he will raise up a true King for Israel, a descendent of David, who will be the salvation of the people.
We, of course, recognise that this great prophecy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. When it comes to the Gospel reading it is as if we see this ancient prophecy of Jeremiah in all its various aspects come to its fulfilment.
The exile into Babylon took place well over five hundred years before Christ and lasted about fifty years; but even though it had happened so long before it was such a formative event in the history of the People of Israel that it remained fresh in their minds.
Now while Jeremiah blamed the fact of the captivity on the uselessness of the leaders of Israel and promised that God would send new and better shepherds they hadn’t made much of an appearance even five hundred years later.
But, as we saw in our Gospel reading last week, Jesus sent out his disciples to teach and preach in the villages and to cure the people and cast out evil spirits. At long last it seems, even if at that moment only in a small way, that this prophecy of Jeremiah was beginning to be fulfilled.
The greatest part of the prophecy was the coming of the Messiah, the Shepherd King of Israel and in our Gospel reading we see Jesus busy about his ministry of shepherding and nurturing his people.
The disciples return full of enthusiasm from their missionary journey among the villages. But they were quite obviously tired and worn out and so Jesus invites them to come to a lonely place where they can rest.
But they get no rest because the people realised where they were going and crowded round them wanting to see and hear more.
This reminds me of one of our Salvatorian missionaries in the Congo, Father Paulus, who had a great reputation as a builder of churches. He got help from many benefactors in Switzerland and with his skill as a builder constructed many churches and chapels in the villages in the area of our mission.
One problem in Africa is the children; they are really nice and friendly but they never let you go. A foreigner is a great source of interest to them and someone special like a big tall priest with a long beard who was going to build a church becomes the object of very great curiosity indeed.
The children used to follow him absolutely everywhere, so much so that he had no privacy at all. Not even to go to the toilet!
In those remote villages it was a case of going out to the corner of a field and finding some bushes you could hide behind in order to give you the privacy to do what you have to do. But there was no chance of that when there was a troop of children following you everywhere.
This exasperated Father Paulus completely and eventually he issued an edict. “You build me a toilet and I’ll build you a church!”
You can imagine how the disciples felt when thinking that they had gone somewhere out of the way for a rest found themselves surrounded by people. But, of course, Jesus takes pity on them and sets himself to teach them because, as it says, they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Maybe the reason the people flocked around was more because they wanted to see miracles and healings than to hear the Gospel preached to them.
But Jesus knows what they really need, Jesus knows what will truly satisfy them –the Word of God. Sensation won’t hold their interest for long; but real solid teaching will.
They want to know the answers to the same questions we do. How did I come into being? What is mans true destiny? How can I find inner peace? What is the best way to live a fulfilling human life?
And Jesus has the answers to all these questions and more. As it says in the Penny catechism: God created us to know him, to love him, to serve him in this world and to be happy with him in the next. Our true destiny lies in heaven. We find inner peace by loving God and our neighbour. The best way to live an authentic human life is to follow God’s laws and to live in close communion with him.
These are the things we are thirsting for. We want to know and understand the meaning of life; we want to do the things that will help us to get to heaven. We want to understand how to overcome sin and all those things which distract us from reaching our true destiny.
Jesus has the answers to our questions; and they all come down to living a life deeply in harmony with God. And he not only tells us but shows us the way. He talks the talk but he also walks the walk.
And his walk takes him eventually to Jerusalem and up the hill to Golgotha where he gave his life for us. And on the Cross he shows us that the ultimate act of sacrifice is what gives life and salvation to the whole world.
And he invites us to walk with him; to walk with him on his journeys through Palestine where we can listen to his teaching and experience his healing ministry, and then to walk with him on that last journey to the Cross to suffer and die and rise to new life with him.
No wonder they wanted to hear more.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket