In today’s Gospel we see Jesus as the compassionate Shepherd tending to the multitude instead of to His own needs and those of His disciples. He said to the disciples: “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.” Scripture then says: “But people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them … So as He stepped ashore He saw a large crowd; and He took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and He set Himself to teach them at some length.”
We are in that same crowd, rushing to get to the place where Jesus will be, so that He can nourish us. Totally compassion-led, He fed the crowd with His teaching and with the unfolding of Scripture. Later, He fed them with miracles and signs. It is a mysterious and wonderful truth to see our own faces being drawn along in the crowd, seeking Him with all our hearts.
The presence of Jesus is reserved in Catholic Churches in the profound form of the Blessed Sacrament, and we can visit Him whenever we like. We meet Him in our sisters and brothers and through the experiences we encounter on life’s road. We meet Him in quiet prayer, in the sanctity of the present moment when we are inspired to draw ourselves away from everything else to find communion with Jesus. We meet Him in Scripture: we come to Him in the New Testament, but He is also present in the Old Testament. He is, after all, the Word of God and the fulfilment of all Scripture. And it is at Mass, when we receive Jesus as our nourishment, that we meet Him head-on, as it were, in the forms of the Word of God and in the likeness of bread and wine.
I wonder, though, how resolutely we truly seek Him. We can all fail, for sure. Though He gives us nourishment and leads us, how willing are we to accept being led? The world in which we live is not a ‘being led’ kind of place and our culture heavily broadcasts the message of power, domination and control. Look, for example, at our measures of success, which are based on being in charge, having autonomy, being able to do what we like because we are important. There is little room in this perpetually reinforced dogma to warrant surrendering, as sheep into the hands of a shepherd.
Even the disciples struggled with this. Several times – and no doubt more, outside Gospel accounts – they were rebuked by Jesus for translating their position as believers into a power struggle, whether directly or passively. This was why He knelt at their feet on the evening before His death and washed their dirty feet: He was showing them that only one who serves can lead, that only the humble shall be exalted.
Prayer is not like writing a play. We can’t simply write the script and act it out. No, our relationship with God is rather like any relationship between two persons: dynamic, surprising, hidden, beyond us, ever-new. To seek Him truly, we must do what that crowd did and run for our lives towards Him, regardless of the rocky road before us and the clamour of the multitude. Of course, we shall be met by those who revile us for doing what they consider is crazy; they will insult us, throw stones at us, write about us on social media, perhaps even try to kill us: but we carry on running. Of these people, the Psalmist says: “These are the ones who trust in themselves, who have others at their beck and call.”There is an action of surrender hidden in this crowd, as they place themselves before Jesus. They come open-handed, needful, they are unprotected. They do not seek to master the situation or provide a running commentary on how special or important they think they are. Jesus is all. They find Him, and they listen with openness, they allow themselves to be led. As St Benedict quoted in the Prologue of his Rule for Monks: ‘Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you.’
We can be sure of Jesus’ response. He is Compassion like we have never known. His love is something too powerful for us to fully grasp; His mercy is forged infinitely beyond the limitations of human understanding. Although the world cannot seem to accept that there can be any being greater than man itself, God is greater than our hearts.
Sister Wendy Beckett wrote that ‘To pray is to stand unprotected before God.’ We are not talking about submission, about us ‘down here’ and them ‘up there’, about being inferior and subjugated. We are talking about remaining completely open, in the same way that a child views a new thing. If we come to Jesus with our preconceptions we shall usually be left disappointed. It is only in openness that we are able to learn. It is only when we are absolutely open that we can begin to know someone. That dialogue with Jesus – ‘standing unprotected before Him’ – is going to test our human limits: our limits of love, humility, self-worth, charity and mercy. Casting aside our old understanding is a repeat procedure throughout our Christian life. Many give up or are put off by this, and so live inside themselves, as though they are master of all. Instead, perhaps we should trust that Jesus will help us to keep our eyes open, as we recite in today’s Office of Tierce: ‘Open my eyes that I may see the wonders of Your law.’ (Psalm 118.)
With this in mind, we read today’s Gospel Acclamation with new eyes, for Jesus is quite literally defining His followers by this attentive, listening action: ‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, says the Lord, I know them and they follow me.’ (John 10:27.)
We come to Jesus for nourishment. But we come because we want to know Him. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. His statutes are a delight, not a burden. ‘Your will is my delight; Your statutes are my counsellors.’ (Psalm 118.) In this landscape of freedom, Christ the True Shepherd invites us into a personal relationship with Him. This living dialogue is at the heart of our faith and its fulfilment is true communion with Him in paradise. Yes, we can view God as the strict schoolmaster with the cane, but doing so denies Christ as a shepherd; it denies the loving and merciful Fathership of our Creator. Such a view of God has done untold damage through the centuries. Our relationship with God opens us into freedom not slavery, light not darkness, truth not falsehood. Scripture speaks of His commands, statutes, laws, precepts and decrees, but these are all things of joy, means into peace. We cannot begin to fathom His mercy. Even when we sin, He loves us so much that He looks for excuses: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) The knowledge of His unfathomable love for us, and His desire to give us true freedom, should help us to run towards Him, as we read in the last psalm verse of Tierce this morning: “I will run the way of Your commands; You give freedom to my heart.” (Psalm 118.)