The Shepherd’s compassionate heart

Today’s readings revolve around the common theme of shepherding, which culminates in the figure of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

In the first reading, God rebukes the self-serving leaders of Judah, who “mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” He then promises that he himself will shepherd his own people by raising up a “righteous shoot to David as king [who] shall reign and govern wisely.” This promise is finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ, son of God and son of David.

The responsorial psalm (Psalm 23) is a lyrical description of how the Lord lovingly tends his flock. In the second reading, St. Paul presents Jesus as the shepherd who gathers the scattered children of Israel. Moreover, Jesus also breaks down the wall that divides Jews and Gentiles so that all may be united and gathered in his sheepfold, which is his Body, the Church.

The gospel story gives us a glimpse of the compassionate heart of Jesus, the good Shepherd. The apostles had just returned from their mission (last Sunday’s gospel), elated with their success, but also tired and hungry. Jesus therefore invited them to take a rest. They took a boat to go to some quiet place and be by themselves. “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.”

Allow me to borrow Pope Francis’ incisive reflection on this gospel passage. The Holy Father refers to the verbs mentioned in the above-quoted verse: to see, to have compassion and to teach, as the Shepherd’s verbs. The gaze of Jesus is not cold, “objective” or impersonal but one that penetrates the heart.

Hence, Jesus’ response could not but also be one that comes from the heart, which is compassion. More than just some human feeling, compassion is an attitude and predisposition that seek to understand the deeper and hidden need of the other. That is why Jesus “began to teach them many things.”

Before anything else, Jesus saw the people’s need for the bread of his Word for they were lost “like sheep without a shepherd.” They needed the Word of truth to guide their way in life. Eventually, he would also attend to their physical need, as we shall later hear in the story of the multiplication of bread next Sunday.

We see the compassion of Jesus not only for the people who sought him, but also for the apostles who had earlier returned from their mission. Beneath the apostles’ ecstatic joy, Jesus saw their need for rest. And so, he took them away from the crowd and together they crossed the lake so they could be by themselves. They might not have succeeded in finding a quiet place upon reaching the other side. But their company with Jesus and with one another was enough rest for the apostles to be refreshed and re-energized for the mission.

Here we find some valuable lessons from the Lord about rest. The third commandment to make the Lord’s day holy by keeping the Sabbath rest is more than just a mandate to refrain from doing work, which already in itself is a manifestation of the Creator’s compassionate concern for us his creatures. More than the need to take a break from physical exhaustion, our greater need is to replenish our inner resources so we can live fully and meaningfully. This can only be obtained from God, the source of life.

Hence, in our Christian tradition, we keep the Lord’s day holy by coming together at the Eucharistic table to listen to the Word and partake of the Bread of life. It is the day when we celebrate our communion with God and with each other as God’s people. It is in this spirit that we hold Sunday as a special day for the family. Simple family moments like the Sunday meal and recreation are important for they literally re-create us.

More importantly, they deepen our bond, so necessary, for the family is after all our primary source of strength and support in this life’s difficult journey.

Most of all, we find the optimum rest we deeply yearn for in the Lord of the Sabbath. Let us make our Sunday truly the Lord’s day. Let take time to be with him, just as he wanted to be with his apostles, even if only for some moments in the boat. Let us heed his loving invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”* (Mt 11:28)

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