By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
It is good to be back home and with you all this morning… One of the greatest joys of my time with family was getting to know my bouncy three year old nephew Henry. I spent a week with him in Cincinnati and then took him with me for most of a week to my parents house in Goshen, along with his 7 older cousins. During these weeks Henry’s vocabulary exploded.
He has an especially interesting vocabulary since my brother Andy speaks only to him in Russian. While in Goshen, I was also his go-to adult. We spent a lot of time playing together since he was sometimes overwhelmed by all the energy and attention of the older cousins.
One evening at dinner he was quite agitated and I couldn’t figure out how to calm him. He didn’t want his favorite foods and he didn’t want to sit in my lap, both things that usually worked. So I picked him up and we walked around, away from the hubbub of the group.
I asked him what he needed, and if he was sad. I asked him, do you miss your mom and dad? With tears in his eyes he responded, I miss my mom and dad. And that brought tears to my eyes too. I was glad I had the presence of mind to get to the root of his agitation rather than trying to distract him from it or just think of him as a fussy little kid. Saying he missed his parents had a calming effect on him and soon after we gave them a video call.
There was something about his vulnerability in saying he missed his parents, that brought up vulnerability for me too. It’s like I had a flash of young Joanna going through a hard time and missing my parents (who were overseas in Russia). But I was not able to name the underlying sadness because no one was there to hug me and ask me about it. I wished I had had a trusted person to notice my vulnerability and support me through it.
As I’ve reflected on our gospel reading for today, the theme of vulnerability comes through clearly to me. First we have the disciples returning from their travels, which was a vulnerable endeavor. As Sheri shared last week, they took very little with them and were dependent on the hospitality of the people they encountered.
They were sent out to offer healing and instructed to move on whenever they were not welcomed. What if this vulnerable way of following Jesus in his healing ministry had remained the norm? What if anyone sent out in the name of Jesus had followed these instructions? Our world would be an entirely different place. Vulnerability was key to following in the way of Jesus, and how utterly Christianity has missed that mark.
The disciples return from their precarious journey and they are tired and hungry. They are in need of rest and Jesus suggests they retreat from the crowds to a deserted place. Jesus is also most likely desiring a break from the crowds given what happened during the time the disciples were away.
John the Baptist who was Jesus’ mentor, his way-maker, and also his cousin, is gone. John the Baptist, who was incarcerated for speaking out against Herod, has been murdered. I imagine his death was weighing heavily on Jesus, as well as on all the people who were baptized by John in the wilderness.
A retreat is sorely needed, but the vulnerability of the masses gets in the way. They are desperate for Jesus’ attention and healing. And Jesus, even in his own exhaustion, feels compassion for them. Compassion means to suffer with, and I imagine he was suffering with them at the loss of John and in the face of the violence and poverty they endured as dispossessed people. So we have vulnerable disciples and vulnerable Jesus and vulnerable people. The text says that Jesus recognized the people as sheep without a shepherd.
As is often the case in the Bible, this is a subtext. The metaphor of sheep without a shepherd would have reminded Mark’s readers of texts from the Hebrew scriptures.
In Numbers 27 Joshua is appointed to lead the people so that they will not “be sheep without a shepherd.” As Elias Ramer has pointed out before, the Hebrew name for Joshua is Yeshua which is the same name for Jesus, and this connection would not have been lost on Mark’s readers. Joshua was appointed due to the failure of other leaders, who had rendered the people vulnerable. And now we have another Joshua – Jesus – who recognizes that the people are in need of a shepherd.
This need for a shepherd is no fault of the people. Rather in the Hebrew scriptures and in this story in Mark it is a judgement on the ruling elite who are exploiting the people. In Ezekiel (34) the prophet is given sharp words to say to leaders who are failing the people, “You shepherds, thus say the word of YHWH: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
So Mark is making very clear that Jesus is a good shepherd. He suffers with the people. He gives strength to the weak. He heals the sick. He seeks those who are lost. He calls out the ruling class for their exploitation of the vulnerable. And he amasses a growing movement of people who he empowers to carry on his shepherding work.
In the final verse of the text, Mark describes the flourishing of the good shepherd’s movement. “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” No longer a movement at the margins or in the wilderness, the good shepherd was reclaiming the marketplaces for healing rather than dispossession.
Theologian Elizabeth Webb points out,
“The word translated ‘marketplace,’ agora, refers to a public space in which legal hearings, elections, and debates took place, in addition to the buying and selling of goods. Thus the marketplace was the political and commercial center of a city or town.
By healing the sick, the weakest and most vulnerable members of a community, in this space, Jesus is subverting the economy of this world through the very inauguration of God’s kindom economy. While the marketplaces of the world belong to the rich and powerful, in the kindom of God this space is occupied by those with the least.”
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder the earliest images of Jesus were of him as the good shepherd. This image reminded the persecuted movement of a compassionate God who suffered with them, healed them, challenged injustice, and empowered them to do the same.
I find this image of the divine deeply resonate, and also a healing balm. This is a divine presence that is moved to compassion by vulnerability. This is a divine presence who accompanies us through suffering. This is a divine presence who empowers us to be healers. This is a divine presence who rages at the inequalities perpetuated by the ruling elite.
May the good shepherd be our guide through the valleys and the shadows. May the good shepherd strengthen us for the healing work that is ours to do. May the good shepherd empower us to demand justice. And may the good shepherd lead us to places of quiet rest to restore our souls. May it be so, amen.