In today's first reading, Jeremiah stresses the need for good shepherds for the Lord's flock, and he prophesies that Jesus will come and be that perfect Shepherd for God's people. Today's Gospel reading shows Jesus seeking quality time with His apostles, who had just gone out without Him and achieved miracles, and yet when the people clamour for Jesus, He immediately abandons the apostles to go and serve the flock. He Himself is the true Good Shepherd and the model for Paul's "in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2).
The people are there because what Christ teaches feeds their hunger in a way that the Law could not, in a way that the Law as taught and practised at that time did not. Jesus has the "word of life" (John 6:68); He teaches with authority, with a confidence and a grasp of life, though, and with such an awareness of the Old Testament word that His word is its own validation. And Christ has pity on the crowd and begins to teach them "at great length". His are truly the words of life, the words of God.
All very good, and yet I think that if I were one of those apostles I would feel somewhat cheated. After a long time of serving Jesus and helping Him on His mission, He sends them out on their own (except for the Holy Spirit, of course, being with them — and very actively so) to learn what they could do in His name and to see how well they had learned from listening to Him and watching how He responded to people and situations. And now they return and have a chance to receive the equivalent of an intimate group spiritual direction — yet Jesus walks away, seemingly leaving any sharing with them for another time, one that we never see reported in the New Testament. Jesus certainly teaches His disciples on the road as well as taking them aside to further explain certain of His teachings, but this would have been different, more personal.
Why does He choose to minister to the crowds and not to His closest associates, His chosen ones, the trusted and sent ones? Is this a case of the shepherd leaving the ninety- nine sheep behind, trusting them? Maybe because Jesus knew from their recent experience that they could depend on each other and the Spirit to live the life of apostles? Or maybe He knew that He would be leaving them soon and that they would eventually have to work without Him? Or maybe they were actually ready for that, and they would have the Holy Spirit to guide them? And that the crowds had Him only at this moment?
What does that matter to us? Well, Christ has been working with us as long as we have been alive and He sends us out each day to be the Good News to others, to help them drive out their demons, to feed them as well as we can, and to be Christ to them, doing all that we can, as well as we can in His Spirit. Do we feel "entitled" to a little more gratitude and attention from Him for that? Do we think that God owes us something? I'm afraid that we all have that feeling at times, that God could do a lot better in our regard, but we must choose to be the children of God, and to trust Him and His love for us at all times and in every circumstance, even when we sin.
Can we live without constant affirmation and warmth of heart? Do we really want to be God's adult children? Do we ask seriously for that spiritual direction by our regular prayer?
- Chas Kestermeier, SJ