16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 6:30-34
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.
In the current year of the Lectionary cycle (year B), the Church reads from the Gospel according to St. Mark. However, starting next Sunday, we will turn from Mark to the Gospel according to St. John. There, we will read of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, as well as the Bread of Life Discourse.
Before this five-week turn to the Gospel of St. John, we hear of the compassion which led Christ to work the great miracle of feeding the multitudes. He saw the people as sheep having no shepherd. We will appreciate this metaphor far better, if we consider the history of this phrase in the Old Testament.
Jesus son of Nun and Jesus our Savior – Shepherd of the sheep
The first biblical comparison of the people to sheep without a shepherd comes in the book of Numbers (27:17-18), it is from the prayer of Moses as he begs the Lord to appoint a leader for the people after his death.
May the Lord the God of the spirits of all flesh provide a man, that may be over this multitude: And may go out and in before them, and may lead them out, or bring them in: lest the people of the Lord be as sheep without a shepherd.
In answer to his petition, the Lord appointed Joshua the son of Nun to guide the people into the land of the promise. However, the Hebrew of the name “Joshua” is identical to the name “Jesus” – Jeshua’ (meaning, “the LORD saves”). Thus, many of the Fathers of the Church draw this point of comparison: Jesus (i.e. Joshua) the son of Nun led the people into the earthly Land of Promise, but Jesus the Christ has opened the way to the true Land of Promise which is heaven.
Hence, the prayer of Moses – that the people may not be left as sheep without a shepherd – is only fully answered in the coming of our Savior.
Sheep without a shepherd – A military metaphor
However, it may be somewhat surprising to realize that the primary use of the metaphor as sheep having no shepherd is in the context of a military defeat. Consider the prophecy of Micheas (or Micaiah) – this is the prophet who was son of Imlah, not the Micah who wrote the biblical book.
When asked by the Israelite King Achab (or Ahab) whether or not to attack the king of Aram, he ultimately states that disaster will fall upon the King and upon the people if this attack is not called off:
I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, like sheep that have no shepherd: and the Lord said: These have no master: let every man of them return to his house in peace. (3 Kings [1 Kings] 22:17)
The King went forward with his attack, and the prophecy was fulfilled. Not only did Achab forfeit his own life (his blood being lapped up by dogs), but the Israelite people were scattered and fled.
Likewise, Judith when deceiving Holofernes, promises to help him in the defeat of her people, saying that God has become angry and will hand over the people into the grasp of the gentile King.
and thou shalt have all the people of Israel, as sheep that have no shepherd, and there shall not so much as one dog bark against thee: (Judith 11:15)
However, Judith was only leading Holofernes to his own destruction – for that very night, after gaining entrance into his chamber, she cut off his head.
The spiritual combat
When we consider Jesus looking over the crowds and being moved with tender compassion, seeing them as sheep having no shepherd, we are tempted to feel “warm and fuzzy”. Fine and good, there is no doubt that this passage does elicit in our own soul tender affections for Christ!
However, we may read this phrase a different way, if we recognize that the Old Testament context connects this metaphor to military battle. Indeed, not only the prophecy of Micheas and the deceptive words of Judith to the wicked Holofernes but even the prayer of Moses are directly related to military conquest! Recall, after all, that Joshua would have to lead the people into battle against the inhabitants of the Land, beginning with those of the city of Jericho.
The “shepherd” who will gather the flock and lead them is a warrior! And, when the people have no shepherd, they are defeated in battle. Hence, when St. Mark tells us that our Savior saw the people as sheep having no shepherd, we ought to be reminded of a military scene and a great battle.
But now, the Savior has come – the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Armies! The people were suffering a great defeat in the spiritual combat, but Jesus will now unite them under his standard (i.e. his military banner) and he will lead them to a great victory. It is time “to lace up those combat boots” (as it were) and get serious about the life of prayer and the daily growth in virtue, for this is the spiritual combat [here] or [here]!
The Eucharist as our means of victory
When Christ sees the people on the verge of total spiritual defeat and ruin – about to be forced from the field of battle and overcome by Satan – what means does he give for our victory? Multiplying the loaves and fish, our Lord begins to teach us about the Most Holy Eucharist.
The Blessed Sacrament is surely the greatest means of gaining victory in the great spiritual combat. Received worthily and with devotion, we will find that Life which conquers death.