16th Sunday of Ordinary Time
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Ephesians 2:13-18 | Mark 6:30-34
Show favor, oh, Lord, to your servants, and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace that made fervent in hope, faith and charity they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
THE opening reading, the one from the prophet Jeremiah, when I read it I was reminded of many other passages that I have tried to unlock for people that were written by Jeremiah. I find him fascinating. He was a very, very young man when he accepted the role of being a prophet. He was idealistic, and so many times when he would be doing his work and he could see that the thing that he was promised that he could do — to lift people up and show them a way and to give them hope. However, he also had the job of telling those who were not doing what they should that they need to change, and he would judge them and criticize their actions. It seems to me that he was so enthusiastic and young, and he thought, “I love this idea of freeing people. I love the idea of helping them.” But he also realized when he had to do the work he had to say things that upset people. Then he found himself being not honored or loved. There is a wonderful moment when he is sitting in a well that they had thrown him into, and he is sinking into the mud looks at himself and his situation, and then looks up at God and said, “You really duped me into this job. This is not what I had in mind … being rejected. I wanted to be a light to people.” I think that is true of all of us who are called to preach and to teach. We want to open people to the truth. We don’t always like judging them and their actions, but here is the thing. The work of a prophet is always simply to do one thing. It is just simply to open people’s minds and hearts to what is real, what is the truth, what is reality. It seems so simple. I think when we focus on trying to control people’s behavior and do that through threats of fear and punishment, though that seems to be the best way to reach people who are pretty unconscious, it’s never a fulfilling job, I don’t think, for people like Jeremiah or myself or like so many who are called to lift people up.
The interesting thing about Jeremiah is he that he is a classic example of what prophets came up against all the time, and about the best they could do was say, “Look, you may not see a connection, but what’s about to happen to you, the pain and suffering you’re going to be caught up in, is not because God likes punishing people, but it’s the only way he can get your attention. It’s the only way he can make you see that, when you choose a lie and live in it and expect it to produce something that it can’t but only produces division and pain and suffering, you’ve just got to feel that. You’ve got to understand that.” That’s, in a way, the best part of being a prophet, — the task of opening people to what is real and true. Helping them see, not because they’ve been told that they shouldn’t have done it, for the first time perhaps, the choice they made they were told not to, was not simply an arbitrary thing trying to control them. It was really a piece of wisdom that was given to them so they would not be in suffering and in pain as they are. So we look at this role of prophets, and in a sense, it was the major way in which the people of the Old Testament were guided through a process, moving them always to more consciousness and more awareness of who they are, who God is and what they are here for. But it never seemed to be that effective, and that is true. It wasn’t. So in the plan of God, what was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, that one day there would be someone that would come along that would shepherd the people in a very powerful way — and that was this hope of a Messiah, somebody who could come and truly free them.
So what we see in that first reading from Jeremiah is the struggle of the Old Testament, and then we see Jesus, who is the Messiah come in the flesh. We see the beginnings of his work, a new kind of shepherd. The thing about the old shepherds, the shepherds that were not doing the job was that they really had no deep concern for whether their sheep were safe or not. They really didn’t care, but they also had that limitation of not knowing enough to be able to do their job and not understanding how to empower people. And so we have the shepherd, Jesus, and what is it that is so different about Jesus the shepherd? Well, first and foremost, he is the most effective. He is the Good Shepherd. But what is it about Jesus that makes him such a good shepherd? To everyone around, he looked just like any other man. He claimed to be more than just a man. His claim was real. He claimed that he was someone different than anybody had ever been. He had a gift that no human being had ever had before and that was this strange mysterious presence of God in him — presence. The presence of God within him was manifested by great works, but the core of that presence was that he was perfectly in tune with the truth. This presence of God, the teaching of God, and the presence of this God/man Jesus had a transforming effect on people. One of the ways to imagine the effect it had on people was, in the words of St. Paul in the second reading, Jesus took two parts of humanity that were always at war with each other and had the ability to make them one. The two become one. When he did that, he abolished the law. Now, imagine that. There is no longer a law. Well, a law is a way of telling people how to live in the truth. It is demanding that they live in the truth, demanding they do the right thing, the life-giving thing. So how can you take away the law, and then you have chaos?
Well, this is what he did. He didn’t take away the law, but he took away the external rules and laws they were living on and wrote the law on their hearts. So it meant that he changed the nature of human beings so that they no longer needed a law, but there was the possibility that within each human being there was a wisdom and understanding that needed to be born, needed to grow, to take root, to become fully mature that would no longer need an external rule and law with punishment as the motive. So how does he do that? Well, let’s not think about how he does it, because that’s another homily. Let’s just say he did it. That is his ministry — to reconcile two parts inside of you that are always warring. Do you know those two parts? You’re the voice of each one. “I want to do it. I want to do it. I want to do it. I can’t do it. I shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t do it.” All that stuff. “I’m no good. I’m the best.” All this back and forth, back and forth. “Who am I? When I do something wrong, there is a voice that tells me I’m no good. When I do something right, there’s an ego that says, “You’re better than everybody else.” What is all of that? It’s this constant tension between who I should be, who I am, and it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting. I think a lot of people just say, “I’d rather be distracted. I don’t want to live in that constant tension.” And either they decide they’re not going to live in that tension by simply doing whatever they want to do or just stop doing most anything and become sort of passive, or many get really rigid and decide, “No, I’m going to do every one of those rules and laws just as they’re written, and I’m going to be the best Christian in the world.” And they become way out of balance.
How are we to understand this very mysterious thing that Paul is talking about when he says that there is this amazing capacity that this God, this new shepherd, God in a human being, has the capacity and the presence to awaken something in me — God in me, the truth in me. I don’t need a law to tell me what the truth is or guide me in it, but all of this is possible. And the fruit of it is that we become more whole. When you are in a place of peace and at ease with yourself, I guarantee you, this wholeness is going to be much more than just an inner sense of peace, but you’re going to be healthier. They say that the biggest thing that causes and maybe aggravates any disease is tension and stress. I look at this mysterious disease called cancer, and I realize that, in some mysterious way, it has a symbolic value, I think, about the spiritual world. That is — you have a body, and everything in the body is designed to work in harmony with everything else. However, if certain cells in the body start multiplying and get bigger and bigger, and then one part of you starts growing too fast or feeding off of the organs around it, then you die. It is an image of this out-of-balance system. When you are at war with yourself then the system is out of balance.
So we see that what Paul is saying is that this reconciliation between good and evil, right and wrong, is somehow dealt a death blow on the cross. It has something to do with surrendering to this war inside without having one side to win or one side to lose. It’s giving in to it in a way that allows it to be without engaging in parts against themselves, if that makes any sense. This is so new to me so I’m sorry my words aren’t very articulate yet, but they will be some day. It means that there is a harmony between that which is weak in us and that which is strong, and without those two, we can’t ever find balance. We can’t find peace. It is like surrendering to this inner battle, not as if it’s a war one has to win over the other, but a reconciliation of these two powers — one for the good, one for the bad. It is like they get together and say, “You know what? There is something about being excessively good that is really dangerous and being excessively bad that is really dangerous.” By being some mysterious mixture of failure and success, selfishness and selflessness, and in touch with that dynamic going on then it doesn’t seem like a war but just a simply a reality — then we can find peace and stop judging ourselves and everyone else.
Look at the way the world is so filled with contradictory statements now. Who is telling the truth? What is real? What is the right thing to do? One thing I think we all long for, when we look at the world today, is, “Will somebody please tell me what is true?” So I know that this gift of reconciliation won for us on the cross by Jesus has something to do with entering into the truth, and the Good Shepherd is the one who says, “Nobody can really give that to you. All the prophets, as hard as they tried, all the negative kings, as hard as they tried to influence you, none of it really worked in terms of this way of Christ, the gift of reconciliation, the gift of redemption.” That is what needed to take place, and what is it? It is the wisdom of God living inside you and me that no longer sees the tension that we are in as opposites but partners — partners. If I didn’t make mistakes and choose things that were stupid and self-centered and look at those honestly, I can’t be the honest person I want to be. I can’t do it just by saying, “Well, I’m going to ignore and repress all those areas of my life that get me in trouble, and I won’t deal with the tension.” Well, what if the tension is more like a dialogue? What if the tension is more like two interested parties, one wanting you to sin, one wanting you to be good, both come together and say, “We both have a role we could do for this person. We could help them learn the truth. I’ll lead them into something that’s negative, and then they’ll see it, and then they’ll grow. And then you can lead them into good things. They can experience the good things, and they’ll grow even more. And we’ll together do it.”
It’s like reconciling two opposite forces. Now, we do know there’s evil in the world. So what am I saying? There is no evil? No, I’m not talking about an influence that’s negative, not being there. I’m talking about that inner voice, you, your struggle. Jesus was a miracle worker. That’s the thing that we see in the gospel. People were coming from everywhere to be with him. Why? He had something different. What did he have? An integration inside himself that was unlike anyone else, because he had this wisdom called the Spirit, called God living inside of him. He was inviting us into it. It didn’t happen until Pentecost, but nevertheless, he witnessed a peaceful man in the midst of such conflict. Yeah, he was angry and mad at the people that were lying, and yes, he was drawn to anybody that was honest. Those are beautiful images, but if that’s what he was doing, then if reconciliation meant we wouldn’t have any tension anymore, then he didn’t really teach us much. He just did it for us. No, he wants us to learn what he learned. He wants us to work with the Spirit so that we develop this inner law, this inner awareness of what is true, and you can’t do that without making mistakes. You can’t do it without falling on your face and being stupid, and so the peace comes from the reconciliation and understanding of what a true shepherd leads us into, the truth of what is.
God, when you walked this earth incarnate in Jesus, you gave us an image that we are called to live like he lived, with you in him and in us, and what that does is creates this inner stillness, this inner peace that resonates a kind of energy, a kind of power, grace that flows out from us, and it is healing. That was the heart of the healing ministry of Jesus — to reconcile those opposite forces in people which made them healthy. They could see. They could hear. They could speak. They could walk. To help us to understand the miracles that are so dramatic in the scriptures are not limited to just you back then, in a man. It is the potential of transformation that is in all of us. So bless us with an awareness of the grace we carry and the power and healing of that grace. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.