Sunday, July 19, 2015

Year B Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:34-30

In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah not only reprimands the religious leaders of ancient Israel, but foretells, even if obliquely, of the coming of Christ. Christ Jesus is the “righteous shoot” whose name is the “The LORD our justice” (Jer 23:5-6).

Our responsorial psalm is one of the most beautiful and well-known of the one hundred-fifty psalms. Psalm 23 gives us very beautiful imagery of what the Lord, who is the Good Shepherd, has in store for us. Without a doubt the most beloved verse of Psalm 23 is verse four: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.” Of course, mortal life is “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Let’s look at the last phrase of verse four for a minute – “your rod and your staff comfort me.” A shepherd uses his rod and staff to keep the sheep within the fold. As most of us probably know, what we, as Catholics, call the bishop’s crozier is a shepherd’s staff. It has a hook on the end of it, a shepherd uses his staff to hook and pull back a one of the flock who is going astray. By contrast, the shepherd’s staff can be used as a rod. A rod is used to strike, usually not in a hard, vicious manner, but in a corrective way, a way analogous to how you might gently tap the bottom of a toddler who just did something dangerous and needs to know that it is dangerous so he doesn’t do it again. A shepherd who did neither of these things would be a bad shepherd.

Citing Proverbs (3:11-12), the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: “You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: ‘My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges’” (Heb 12:5-6). Getting back to Psalm 23, the Lord does this in order to lead us to our true home, the house of the Father where He spreads a feast before us, anoints us with perfumed oil, and fills our cups to overflowing (Ps 23:5).

Let’s face it, we’re sinful and fallen, but the good news is we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and are now being sanctified. In order to be sanctified, made holy, made more like Christ, we must freely cooperate with what God is doing in and through our lives each and every day. We have to understand that part of the process of sanctification is being corrected and disciplined when we go astray or to keep us from wandering off. This is why we need the grace we receive in and through the sacraments. In addition to participating in the Eucharist, going to confession with some regularity is vitally important to our spiritual health and well-being. It is also the way we experience the Lord’s kindness and mercy. Confession is the sacrament of mercy.

Being Catholic is not an accessory to a full life, one more thing we do to be considered “good” and “respectable” people. No! Putting our faith into practice daily, even if imperfectly, is what we do out of gratitude and love for what the Father has done for us in Christ. It is how we keep the Lord Jesus at the center of our lives, where He belongs. Too often we have the tendency to push Him to the periphery in attempt to keep Him at a safe distance. In other words, it is one thing (and an important one at that) to acknowledge Jesus as Savior, but we must also acknowledge Him as Lord. Like the twelve in today’s Gospel we need to spend dedicated time with the Lord in prayer.

Today’s Gospel reading follows closely on the heels of last week’s, when Jesus sent the twelve out with only the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet. According to St Mark, it seems their mission met with so much success that people kept coming to them, making it impossible for them to even eat (Mark 6:31 ). Jesus invited them to “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). But many people followed them and even arrived at their destination before they did awaiting their arrival.

As the people gathered, Jesus “was moved with pity for them” because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Recognizing this, the Lord “began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). What exactly did Jesus teach them that day? St Mark’s Gospel does not tell us exactly what He taught, but we have many examples of Jesus’ teaching and so we can probably ascertain that He preached the coming of the kingdom, their need for repentance, and invited them to follow Him, and then explained what following Him meant. The next event in Mark’s account, as we will see next week, is Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000, but in the lectionary next Sunday we will use St John’s account of this instead of St Mark’s.

One way of looking at our readings this week and seeing how the message differs from last week is to sense the shift between being sent to preach the Gospel and the content of the Gospel message. In a nutshell, the message of the Gospel is Jesus is Lord. When the Lord Himself, in the very first chapter of St Mark, begins His proclamation by saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), He announced He was Lord. Jesus is the kingdom in person. His Incarnation marked the time of fulfillment. You might ask, “The fulfilment of what?” His Incarnation was the fulfilment of all the prophecies, like one from Jeremiah in our first reading. It marked the culmination of God’s plan of salvation and the ushering in of the new and everlasting covenant.

The Gospel is attractive because it corresponds to reality, to the reality of our individual lives and our life together. Only Christ feeds the hunger every human being experiences, our hunger for love, our hunger meaning, our hunger for belonging. The belonging part is important because, as we see in our reading from Ephesians, the Father not only seeks to unite us to Himself through Christ by the power of the Spirit, but to unite us to each other. We participate fully in the unity when we come to Mass.

Note that in our reading from Ephesians, it does not say that Jesus Christ brings us peace, but that “he is our peace” (Eph 2:14). Christ is our peace with God and our peace with one another. He “broke down the dividing wall of enmity” between us and God and between you and me. The word “enmity” means being actively opposed and/or hostile to someone. Of course, God is never opposed or hostile towards us, but we can certainly be opposed and hostile to God. We call our opposition to and hostility towards God sin. God permits this now, but will not permit it forever, which is why contrition and repentance are so very necessary for everyone, making our proclamation of Jesus’ lordship always urgent.

Christ established peace by establishing His Church, which is what it means when we read that He created “in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace” (Eph 2:15). The Church is Christ’s Body, His bride. We see these two metaphysical realities come together a few chapters later in Ephesians concerning marriage: “So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29-30).

My dear friends Jesus is the one foretold by the prophets. He is the Good Shepherd who leads us through “the shadow of the valley of death” to life everlasting if we choose to follow Him. By His passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Spirit, He is our peace with God and with one another. In short, Jesus is Lord. At end of this Mass you will be sent forth in peace to glorify the Lord by your life. I urge you to heed His call and submit to His Lordship.

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