19 summers ago, I had the great privilege of spending a month studying in Israel. One day, while waiting for a bus on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road, I was watching a shepherd moving his sheep, calling them each by name as he did so. It was one of those wonderful “Oh, that’s what Jesus was talking about!” moments, that are one of the many benefits of being a pilgrim in the Holy land.
Sheep-herding was an important activity in ancient Israel. Good shepherding inevitably served as an image for good governing (in the case of the King) and of good leadership in general. Hence, Jeremiah’s invective against those who mislead and scatter those they are responsible to guide and govern [Jeremiah 23:1-6]. Hence also Jesus’ own reaction [Mark 6:30-34], when he saw the vast crowd, who were like sheep without a shepherd, an Old Testament phrase used by the prophet Micaiah in the 1st Book of Kings [1 Kings 22:17]. Interestingly, Jesus’ response to the people’s plight was to teach them many things.
Traditionally in the Church, we speak of Christ as priest and king – and teacher. Correspondingly, we speak of the mission of the apostles (and of the bishops, their successors as shepherds in the Church) to sanctify, to govern, and to teach. Jesus responded to the people’s predicament by teaching – lovingly teaching them the truth about God, about themselves, and about their lives in the world. And he has commissioned his Church to do the same – to respond to people’s predicament in every time and place by lovingly teaching the world the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world.
The Church, of course, carries out this teaching mission in many ways. In our present-day, especially in our increasingly politically polarized society, as the Church continues Christ’s teaching mission to the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world, people on opposing sides on various issues often try to identify the Church with particular policies - whether to identify the Church with a favored particular policy or political party, or else to attack it as for supposedly colluding with a policy or political party that they oppose. The Church, however, is not a think-tank producing its own specific public policy proposals. Nor is it a political party aspiring to win elections and control the government.
Rather, the Church’s a mission is to teach truth in accordance with the lessons of human experience and human reasoning and in fidelity to what an authentic Christian faith believes to have been revealed by God. These constants the Church continues to teach in a world that is constantly changing – changing politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The challenge to faith is not human activity as such, but the tendency to compartmentalize human activity, to separate our political, economic, social, and cultural activities in the world from what we know to be true about God and about human beings, all of which are ultimately meant to be linked.
One of the sad characteristics of our time is how easily fragmented our lives can become – separating our activities form one another and from the truth about God and human nature. In the process, we have become increasingly fragmented as a society, even as the world itself comes closer and closer together.
That’s one reason why it is good to remember that Christianity itself got its start in what was, in terms of its own time, an increasingly and confusingly globalized society, with both the benefits and burdens associated with that. Thus, the Roman Empire had united all the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, creating one multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-religious unit. Unity, however, was something else again. And it was the Christians largely who created among themselves what amounted to a miniature welfare state – something neither the Empire nor the traditional pagan cults could or would do.
Then, as now, it was awareness of what God has done for us in Christ that created a new sense of human solidarity. As we just heard Saint Paul remind the Ephesians: In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, he who broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, that he might create in himself one new person [Ephesians 2:13-18].
Jesus founded his Church to continue his mission, appointing apostles (and their successors) to witness to the truth about God, about human life, and about human activity in the world. It is that truth which in turn transforms our ordinary (and extraordinary) activities in the world, making it possible to unite men and women, through Christ, in solidarity with one another, and with our common God and Father.
Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 22, 2012.