The gospel today makes me smile. The apostles have been working so very hard that they have had no space to even eat. Jesus knows about this and the need for them to go off some quiet place and rest. This planned rest was spoilt by the crowd who have gone ahead of Jesus and his disciples to wait for them at the same place they were meant to stay and rest. Jesus was not upset at this but took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. This pastoral approach sets a standard for the disciples, as well as correcting the poor shepherding habits expressed in the prophecy of Jeremiah.
Let’s not be too romantic about this gospel passage. It sounds like those awkward moments when you have planned to go off and rest from the tight daily schedule and suddenly you have an emergency call that needs pastoral attention. You are torn apart between your care for the flock and your responsibility of personal care and wellbeing, either which is as important as the other.
At such moments you hardly ever remember the wise advice often given to all whose vocation and profession are very demanding; suggesting that they need to plan their lives and take some rest in order to be physically and emotionally stable enough to do their work. But how much can you plan your life to get a bit of rest in the midst of tight busy pastoral life? The reality is that a greater percentage of what happens to us and those we serve is unplanned. There is hardly ever the question of planned accidents, marriage and family breakdown, economic challenges, sickness and death etc. These are often the challenges that face those we serve.
Jesus did all that was humanly possible to plan his life and ministry: The call of his disciples; choosing a specific number as disciples; picking a particular number for mission; sending them on a specific mission; instructing them on a specific style and approach and where exactly they must go; he chose when to pray and where; he taught them the rubrics of our Lord’s Prayer; he planned his actions at the cleansing of the temple; he sent his disciples ahead to prepare the feast of Passover.
But in all these, most of his life and ministry was unplanned. All the miracles, starting with the marriage at Cana, were only in response to the needs of people and to give glory to God. They were not planned. It wasn’t a show. Rather, he used every given unplanned challenge to bear witness to the grace of God working in the least possible moments.
The unplanned moments of life can be moments of grace; moments of faith, hope and love. What is it that Jeremiah laments about the shepherds? What are they not doing right? They have not been doing their duty of ‘gathering together’ the scattered flock. A true shepherd is one who gathers his flock. It is easier to scatter than to gather. Gathering the pieces of broken humanity can be tough. Gathering the debris of the unplanned accidents and incidents of life can be demanding. Gathering the divided nations, races and tribes of the world into the peace of Christ, who through his blood has made the two into one, can be daring; the temptation is to take the easy route of division, playing into the hands of segregations or to feed on the gullibility of the flock than to feed them with truth and justice, which liberates.
Jesus took pity on the crowd. Yes, he did. Mercy and compassion is the motivating force that drives the true shepherds into ministry. Where there is no mercy there is no ministry. Where there is no compassion there is no conscience. The Goodness and Mercy of the Lord, our Shepherd, should follow us all the days of our lives. If we must have a plan for the ministry, it is the plan to be ready to show mercy and compassion in every circumstance. This can only be possible when we are truly connected with our own inner strength and weakness.