Woe to the Shepherds!

There is a great word - one of those words people trot out on occasion to show how clever they are - that captures well the relationship between the first reading and the Gospel: chiaroscuro. An Italian word meaning "light-dark," chiaroscuro describes the interplay between light and shadow in art. An interesting example of chiaroscuro can be glimpsed in Artemisia's "Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" (c. 1625). 

After severing the head of Holofernes, the Judith and Abra prepare to depart the slain leader's tent. Notice the shadow cast by the left hand, how it seems to add a sense of urgency to the scene. Holofernes's murder completed, they must now steal away under the cover of darkness and return to their besieged town. Morning's light will reveal to Holofernes's troops a ghastly sight: the head of their former leader on display from the walls of the town.

Today's Mass readings have a similar play of light-and-darkness. The first reading, indeed, should stir anyone engaged in pastoral ministry:
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
Without question, many of us know something of this dilemma: disgusted with hypocrisy or enraged at an apparent lack of accountability, we feel as though we've been scattered. Our eyes meet only a bleak horizon, we experience a vacuum of leadership, and we strain to find a reason to hope.

Fast forward to the Gospel. Jesus' disciples return to him and wish to share their experiences of mission. He invites them to go to a deserted place where they can find rest and, perhaps, share their stories. Yet, peace and quiet are not quite in the cards for them: people hear of Jesus' presence and clamor to see him. Indeed, as he takes a boat across the water, the people gather and actually beat him to his destination!

Rather that growing annoyed that they had interrupted his day-off, note Jesus' reaction:
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things. 
A new shepherd has been sent to them, placed in their midst. This shepherd requires not a statement of orthodoxy or testimony to one's righteousness before he agrees to minister. This shepherd sees the flock and responds to their needs.

Mark Edmunson, in a piece entitled "The Trouble With Online Education," rightly sees that a failure of online education is that it's a one-size-fits-all endeavor. I know this from experience - it is really difficult to teach the tin whistle to people without being able to hear them or see them or correct their finger placement personally. A good teacher must respond to the needs presented and realizes that there is no pre-fabricated mold able to be imposed upon any and every group. Students, like Church congregations, are living organisms and must be treated as such: delicately, patiently, lovingly, and personally.

Today's readings should give us pause to discern where we stand: are we given more to the shadow or to the light? Are we agents who scatter or do we possess a density that draws people together? Do we help the flock to multiply, do we feed it as needed, or do we leave it to languish? As we experience the darkness of the world, are we able to respond to its needs not with empty platitudes but, rather, with discerning hearts which listen for, and respond to, the needs of others? Can our own hearts be moved by the hunger of the world and do we have the courage to give of ourselves - our time and our talents - to feed it? 
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