FROM A READING FOR
JULY 19, 16TH SUNDAY
OF THE YEAR
'He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through Him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father...' -- Ephesians 2:17-18


We can never forget that the Bible is a self-critical book. Though some people use its writings as ammunition to cut down other faiths or denominations, our sacred authors almost always took stylus to papyrus in order to critique the way in which their own faith was being lived or abused by the communities for whom they wrote.

This is especially true of Sunday's three readings. Our Jeremiah (23:1-6) passage is just one of many in which the prophet attacks Judaism's "shepherds" -- a biblical term normally reserved for the country's leaders. (Since there was no concept of the separation of church and state in sixth-century-BC Judah, Jeremiah includes both priests and kings in this condemnation.)

Yahweh's complaint against these individuals is short and to the point: "They mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."

Our biblical authors -- Hebrew and Christian -- presume that authentic leaders should faithfully direct and go before us down the path God has chosen us to travel, a path that always has unity as its goal. No matter their diversity, God's people are meant to be one people.

Can we change?
Of course, toward the end of his ministry, Jeremiah gave up hope of changing the organized religion of his day and age. He only prayed that the future Babylonian destruction of the institution would eventually lead to a rebirth of faith and the rise of a new, righteous king, who would reign and govern wisely.

Though He wasn't a king, Jesus' first followers believed He was the leader for whom the Chosen People had been waiting for centuries. The Pauline disciple who wrote Ephesians (2:13-18) clicks off His unifying characteristics: "He is our peace, He who made both [Jew and Gentile] one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity...abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that He might create to Himself one new person in place of the two."

If He's not uniting us, Jesus can't be "the Lord, our justice."

Yet, as Rev. John McKenzie pointed out in his 1960s bestseller, "Authority in the Church," some early Church leaders refused to imitate Jesus' leadership style. Our evangelists rarely condemn anyone for rejecting authority. Their condemnations almost always are directed at those abusing their authority, as we hear in Sunday's Gospel (Mark 6:30-34): "His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd."

(Scripture scholars remind us that when the Gospel Jesus has an issue with Jewish leaders, the evangelist is actually directing his words to Christian leaders. It's simply a more gentle way to condemn them than calling them out directly.)

Who's in charge
Mark has already called leadership to task back in chapter 3, accusing them of the "unforgiveable sin:" crediting the devil for something that actually comes from God. If our leaders can't distinguish good from bad, we're in trouble.

Mark's Jesus provides an example of true Christian leadership by forcing His reluctant followers to give the hungry crowd something to eat. In the bread miracle which follows, Jesus instigates the process, blessing what "little" they have and giving it back to them to distribute.

Mark's message is clear: Only by sharing with others do we unite others. True leaders provide opportunities for sharing.