Shepherds and Children – Tom Mundahl reflects on restoring a healing relationship with the natural world.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The readings for this “Shepherd Sunday” ask us to embrace an image problematic in a culture whose focus is too often on acquiring a new Apple Watch or wondering whether that Tesla electric car will finally become affordable. Yet, the power of this metaphor seen vividly in the sixth century churches of Ravenna, Italy, built in an eastern style teeming with colorful mosaics, is even more important today. For the image of the shepherd, portrayed so colorfully in the central dome of Sant’ Appolinaire in Classe, celebrates new creation and resurrection life with trees, streams, peacocks, lions, mythological creatures, and many sheep, depicting a fullness that robs these consumer baubles of their gleam. That fullness belongs to all.
For those of us struggling to serve creation, the importance of the image of “shepherd” cannot be over-emphasized. Is there a biblical role more appropriate to carrying out the call to “tend and care” for all that God has made? (Genesis 2:15) Historically, that metaphor soon was applied to kings who followed in the line of David, the “shepherd boy.” Shepherd-kings could be models of care and compassion. And, if they failed, there were prophets to illuminate their actions, exposing the actions of those who “fed themselves instead of the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:2), or “scattered the sheep of my pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1).
Jeremiah’s prophetic language makes it clear that recent monarchs called to serve their people and land have failed. They are the ones responsible for the “scattering of the sheep”—the exile in Babylon. Now, the only solution, according to Jeremiah, is for the LORD to assume the shepherd’s staff “and gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them . . .” (Jeremiah 23:3). Not only that, but this new divine “shepherd” will “raise up shepherds (kings) over them, who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, nor be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:4)
Here, Jeremiah gets uncomfortably specific. The LORD will begin this process by installing a new servant-king with the (to us) florid name, “the LORD is my righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Of course, this is the meaning of the name Zedekiah, the puppet king installed by Nebuchadrezzer before the beginning of actual deportations in 587-586 BCE. Since this “righteous one” will be anointed by the LORD and not Nebuchadrezzar, a new king is on the way. For the former Zedekiah’s name was public relations only; in fact, he continued to fleece his people (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible Commentary, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 143).
Yet, Jeremiah sees more than a new head of state coming. Jeremiah 23:7-8 (which should be included in this pericope) foresees a time when the return from exile will be seen as even more important than the first Exodus. Not only does this remind us of the landless lack of identity experienced by deportees, but it also suggests the stunning new embrace of the land that will occur when they return. Once more will those who return will experience as if for the first time what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “ a world charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, New York: Knopf, 1995, p.14), a land community to tend and care for like a shepherd.
Failure of leadership is nothing new. American political culture too often rewards cabinet secretaries and those in high office with powerful positions in “the private sector,” where they can now dance through regulatory mazes with confidence as they earn handsome salaries. Of course, the reverse is often true: business leaders are appointed to positions of leadership where they carry mandates to regulate the very firms they have come from, and, perhaps, will return to. What would a Jeremiah have to say about the “shepherds” benefiting from this system of “interlocking directorates” stemming from this perverse “circulation of elites”?
James Luther Mays begins his reflection on Psalm 23 with a helpful discussion of metaphor. To use a metaphor, such as “the LORD is my shepherd,” says Mays, “conveys more and speaks more powerfully than it is possible to do in discursive speech.” (Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, pp. 115-116). While this seems to be invariably true, how much more so is it true in this powerful psalm celebrating God’s shepherding during a time of crisis.
Roman Catholic scholar John S. Kselman dates the composition of the psalm to the same period of early exile in which Jeremiah worked. As Kselman suggests, this ‘psalm of trust’ points to a “divine shepherd, who leads his people in a new Exodus through danger (vv. 1-4) to security (vv. 5-6).” (New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 23). The logic of the psalm begins with an initial statement: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (or, better, “nothing shall I lack”). (Psalm 23:1). The remainder of the psalm, then, describes in powerful poetry all that this people on their New Exodus journey do not lack.
In many ways, the psalm could read as a preferred alternative to Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and finds an echo in Luther’s Small Catechism with the explanation of “The First Article” of the Apostles’ Creed. According to Luther, to confess “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” is, in fact, to say:
“I believe that God has created me and all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children livestock, and all property . . . . God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, 1162).
Notice that both the psalm and Luther’s “explanation” focus on needs, not the many created wants of contemporary consumer culture. These provide a model of shaping community and personal life so that we can ex-tend ourselves in “tending and caring” (Genesis 2:15) in service to the whole creation, a service that necessarily involves a redistribution of wealth in order to meet needs with justice.
That “extension” is clearly visible in our text from Mark’s Gospel. As Jesus’ disciples return from their preaching-healing tour, they all need a rest. Instead of welcome breathing space in the wilderness, the crowds keep coming. Even escape by boat proves impossible. According to Ched Myers, “Now even the wilderness is congested with those in need. Yet rather than responding in exasperation, Jesus demonstrates compassion, and proceeds to teach them until the late hours” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 206).
To react with compassion in such a difficult situation because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34) vaults this “human one” into clear shepherd status. And, in no way should this be seen as a safe exercise in pastoral sympathy. As Walter Brueggemann notes, “In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharoah, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. The norms of law are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 88). Jesus’ extension of compassion is a revolutionary refusal to countenance the numbness built up by decades of imperial rule in favor of authentic hope.
Jesus’ compassion is practical radicalism: he frees his listeners from the “exile” of infirmity and numb despair (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). By honoring their need for learning, healing, and food, he invites them to be “at home” even in a land ruled by Roman “stooges” and religious collaborators. By showing compassion and promising an ‘end of exile,’ Jesus engenders opposition, especially among those “who possess the most and have the most to lose” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 174).
While the numbers of homeless refugees and people without hope for healing undoubtedly is far greater today than could be imagined in the first century, Elizabeth Kolbert has pointed out a similar threat to the rest of creation (The Sixth Extinction, New York: Macmillan, 2014). Perhaps this crisis will intensify the compassion toward all of creation which E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” an innate tendency to focus on life forms and to affiliate with them emotionally. (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, New York: Vintage, 2002, p. 134)
The studies that have been done in this area largely revolve around the nurture of children. In the groundbreaking The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration in Ecopsychology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Theodore Roszak complains that the handbook of mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “defines separation anxiety disorder as excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and those to whom the individual is attached. But no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world” (pp. 14-15). Yet, if E. O. Wilson is correct, humankind—especially children—has a natural affinity for connecting with creation.
Among those who have picked up this theme is Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). After participating in a study group focused on this book, a group of adults at Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, MN, initiated a children’s gardening program using two of the congregation’s community garden plots. One of the goals of Kids Crops, as this program was called, was to help children experience what Louv calls “attention restoration” (Louv, pp. 103-105), a way of learning to experience and fall in love with God’s creation and all its “critters.”
The “shepherds” in this case were church members who love gardening. Although children were often challenged with learning about soil preparation, compost, weeding, and watering, their excited response as they ate pizzas spiced with peppers and onions they had grown demonstrated that the rift between children and creation [nature-deficit disorder] could be healed with joyful learning. Fortunately, similar work is being done in Saint Paul (and around the country) with programs like Urban Roots, which employs its seven gardens and small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization to introduce children and youth in the East Side neighborhoods to gardening.
And that is as it should be. As the author of Ephesians celebrates “breaking down the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14), we recall that this is integral to God’s shaping “all things” (Ephesians 1:10) into a new pattern. Certainly breaking down the wall between children and nature is part of this process.
Intrinsic to this new pattern is being “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2: 19). This is the fruit of God’s gift of “reconciliation,” άποκαταλλάσσω, a verb form used only here (v. 16) and in Colossians 1. Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate suggest that this powerful verb “intensifies the sense of reconciliation, possibly with reference to the enormity of the claim being made, that the entire universe was to be reconciled to the creator through the work of Christ on the cross.” (Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor University Press, p. 100). Which is precisely what shepherds do.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN