Who Will Shepherd the Shepherdless? – Dennis Ormseth reflects on a way of life where vices have been transformed into economic virtues.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
On hearing the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost, those gathered for worship might easily regard themselves also as “sheep without a shepherd,” for whom Jesus has compassion. Like the social world from which the villagers of Galilee came to Jesus in the wilderness, the world from which contemporary worshipers come to hear his teaching is all too frequently as badly governed and managed as was Galilee under Herod Antipas. As among those guests with Herod when the head of John the Baptist was served up for food, so also amidst the conspicuous consumers of our political and economic elites, death reigns (see our comment on the readings for last Sunday). If told to go “into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat,” as Jesus’ disciples thought to instruct the gathering in the wilderness, those gathered today would be fully subject to the anxiety of providing for themselves from a market dominated by the politically powerful and the materially wealthy. Indeed, if anything, we have made a science of creating the economic circumstances that generate such anxieties for most of the people of the world.
Particularly telling is the instruction “to buy something for themselves to eat.” What’s typically available for people to buy these days are the products of a system in which people, simply by “providing for themselves,” as Norman Wirzba puts it, often “work against the very memberships [of creation] that sustain them.” Following a finely drawn description of the ecological degradation of Earth’s atmosphere, forests, soil, water and fisheries by modern, industrial agricultural practices, Wirzba’s indictment is strongly worded but unfortunately too true:
“In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhood and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 89).
No mere unintended consequence of good practices, Wirzba insists, this state of affairs “has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile,” as he characterizes the situation, exile from the good garden of God’s creation. “In a variety of ways,” he writes,
“today’s global, free-market economy guarantees that we will disregard, diminish, and destroy the larger economy of creation, and so deprive ourselves of the experience of home. It does this by (1) encouraging patterns of life that keep us from seeing and correctly interpreting where we are, and by (2) forming groups of people who, because of their habits and dispositions, find it very difficult to live into any place with sympathy, affection, responsibility, and joy. Paradoxically, the economic disciplines and practices that are supposed to help us live long and well within our homes are now largely responsible for ensuring that we will live perpetually in a state of exile” (Wirzba, p. 90).
Indeed, he argues, “the success of today’s consumer economy depends on the inattentiveness of its consumers. Very few people appreciate the extent to which their shopping decisions contribute to the degradation of the world’s ecosystems. Fewer still understand how this ecological degradation has the potential to catastrophically jeopardize long-term food safety and sustainability.” Meanwhile, as global food production becomes ever more securely tied to the profit-driven interests of multinational corporations, “land, water, minerals, energy, genetic diversity, as well as the many forms of social capital, are consolidated and then managed by a small number of elites. Because poor people cannot afford to enter the global economy, they are easily abandoned and forgotten, or they are made the objects of charity and relief efforts.” (Wirzba, p. 95).
Quoting Wendell Berry, Wirzba colorfully suggests that our economy is
“an anonymous economy of the “one-night stand”: “‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’ Just so, the industrial eater says to the svelte industrial hog, ‘We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterward.’” We don’t want to know the social, ecological, or health costs associated with our ignorant consumption because if we knew them we would need to give up the idea of “cheap” food “on demand.” Meanwhile, . . . the real costs to places and communities around the world are mounting” (Wirzba, p. 97).
The key point is that this whole development of the way we “provide for ourselves” is a long-term, intentional transformation of human culture. People have been taught “to think differently about human behavior and the aims of a good human life.” What “the great moral and spiritual traditions” once regarded as vices “—pride, greed, prodigality—“ have been “transformed into economic virtues,” so that “Adam Smith’s ideas about production, acquisition, and work “ could take hold. In a fundamental “redefinition of self-interest” people have come “to measure personal worth in terms of private wealth”; then it “is a short step from the legitimation of self-interest to the enshrinement of competition and destruction as the normal, even necessary, courses of economic life” (Wirzba, p. 99).
In light of this analysis of the world from which we come to Jesus for sanctuary and healing, how are we to understand the significance of this Sunday’s gathering around Mark’s teaching? Is the feeding of the five thousand a model of charity, as though Jesus’ compassion is mostly about “feeding the hungry?” Beyond that possibility, the commonly invoked alternative of teaching people to provide for themselves is clearly inadequate. Mark’s purpose with this feeding narrative, we need to recall (and with the associated one that follows when Jesus and his disciples “land at Gennesaret” and draw a similar crowd, this time of Gentiles), is informed by narratives from Israel’s prophetic tradition. As Ched Myers points out, Mark “is working with several images from the Hebrew scriptures here. The Exodus account of Yahweh’s sustenance of Israel in the ‘wilderness’ obviously comes to mind.” Mark’s narrative is more directly patterned on “an episode in the Elisha miracle cycle “(2 Kings 4:42-44), however, occurring as it does“ in the context of “famine in the land (2 Kings 4:38),” and the bringing of first fruits. And of course a “third Old Testament allusion is the phrase ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34),” which the prophets used “to criticize the leadership of Israel.” Our first lesson from Jeremiah 23:1-6 is one of several possible citations from this tradition (cf. Numbers 27:17; I Kings 22:17; Ezekiel. 34:5-6). In Myers’ view, Ezekiel 34 is particularly significant: it spins a parable around the phrase “that specifically condemns class stratification: ‘I will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (Ezekiel 34:20). The ruling class protects its privilege rather than the collective prosperity of the people, becoming predator instead of shepherd.” And for similar reasons, the motif occurs again in the apocalyptic section of Zechariah 11-12. “Clearly,” Myers concludes, “linking Jesus—as one who attends to the hunger of the crowds in the wilderness—with these prophetic traditions is meant as a criticism of the political economy of Palestine and the ruling class who profits from it. And, as we shall see, Mark will again draw upon the Zechariah parable at the end of the story (Mark 14:27)” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 206-08.)
In other words, Mark’s narrative contains a political critique that provides a basis for addressing the circumstances of “exile from God’s creation” described above. More is called for than either charity for the unfortunate or enhancement of their technological mastery of resources. Governance is the central concern and the question is: Whose governance? Who will shepherd the shepherdless in our ecologically destructive time into a healthy relationship with Earth? Accordingly, note must be taken that the text resonates with deep theological considerations. As Gordon Lathrop reminds us in commenting on these texts, the metaphor of the “shepherd for shepherdless people” is a metaphor for God. And while on the one hand, “to the hearers of this gospel-book, the isolation and hiddenness, of course, function as a narrative reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus, his greatest isolation, where he was most kat’ idian” (by himself), on the other hand, “the crowd which streams to this isolated one and the compassion and food which come from him are narrative presentations of the resurrection.” And the crowd, he notes,
“includes also the present assembly of hearers of the story. Once again, even this fragment of the feeding story is a secret epiphany of the Crucified and Risen One—indeed, an epiphany of the shepherd God –present in the midst of the church. . . . . the ‘shepherd’s’ profound compassion is already the beginning of food for the crowd, a food radically different from anything that Herod served in the immediately preceding narrative[p. 114]. . . . Can given-away, mercy-filled food lead? Yes.” (“Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000, pp. 113-14).
So, “let the sermon announce the judgment of God on false leadership, including the preacher’s own,” admonishes Lathrop, while announcing the gathering, wall-destroying, death-destroying leadership of God, present in the grace, leisure, and life—in the food-–that is here given away. And let the assembly be a temple for that God, for the holy Trinity, the God of boundless compassion” (Lathrop, p. 115).
Further development of these theological themes awaits as for the next five Sundays we turn to the narrative of the feeding by the “Bread of Life” from chapter six of the Gospel of John. Lest we leave too quickly the down-to-earth implications of the prophetic critique of leadership, however, our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the shepherding of God has implications for the gathering’s understanding of itself: as Lathrop summarizes the remarkable images for the church contained in the reading, “The church is a union of the far-off and the near, with the wall torn down and the law which divided abolished (2:14-15). It is indeed the ragged crowd of the Gospel. The church is the ‘household of God,’ the gathered people, a single body, and yet a new-built temple (2:19-20)” (Lathrop, p. 115). That perspective is present in Mark’s narrative as well: Jesus feeds both Jew and Gentile in the wilderness, where God is clearly and unquestionably the host. If, as we have been arguing in this series of comments on the lections for year B, Mark’s narrative is about the displacement of the presence of God from the temple in Jerusalem to the person of Jesus, this “ragged crowd” is privileged by being newly at home with him in the creation given to sustain their lives.
Wirzba describes well what this means for the community, drawing on the prophet whose voice we heard in our first reading, although at another place:
“If we are to enjoy the abundant, delectable life God makes possible, we must first become disciples or apprentices of God the gardener. Perhaps this is why the prophet Jeremiah, speaking to people who knew intimately the pain and place of exile, admonished them to plant gardens and seek the welfare of the city as a sign of hope (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Insofar as people practice the attention and discipline of good work, work that honors the Creator and affirms the need and nurture of creation’s memberships, they share in the life-giving ways of God. The crucial point, however, is that human hope for a good life and a healthy home depends on the affirmation of creatureliness and the embrace of the memberships of life. The path out of exile is a path inspired and directed by God’s own care-full, life-creating work in the world” (Wirzba, p. 76).
If “all around us the memberships of creation are coming apart” (Wirzba, p. 80), what creatures “need is the healing and strengthening of memberships, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on Earth of Christ’s practice or way of being, has a vital role to play (Wirzba, p. 147).
Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.