The greatest lesson of Christianity is the simplest: How to be selfishly selfless. That seems like a contradiction to anybody who doesn’t know the love of family. So imagine the band of brothers Christ assembled to carry on his mission of earthly salvation. They put in a hard day of spreading the gospel and interacting with crowds and they are spent. The Master sees this and takes pity.
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while,” Jesus tells them.
After all, as this Sunday’s gospel reading tells us (Mk 6:30-34), people were coming and going in great numbers, and Jesus’ disciples had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place so they could answer their physiological and psychological needs. Bliss.
Then reality sets in again. Those masses of sheep see where these shepherds are heading and follow them.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. Jesus sees what this vast crowd is up to, and what does he do?
He takes pity on them—for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
He and his disciples had done their due diligence that day and earned the right to rest. That right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness resides someplace in the human brain as a survival strategy. The framers of U.S. law recognized this right and declared it along with our independence from human tyranny. But the heart intercedes, and it has a survival strategy too—and the salvation of those we love depends on it. The heart of all good shepherds is always stronger than the impulses of their brains, and they must be true to the drive that powers God’s Kingdom.
There are bad shepherds too—the ones who isolate selfish from selfless and let the latter die and decay in their hearts. Those are the ones against whom the Good Shepherd’s band of brothers were trained to prevail. The result was prophesized in the Book of Jeremiah—from which Sunday’s mass takes its first reading (Jer 23:1-6):
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
For as stated in Sunday’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Eph 2:13-18), human barriers that isolated Jew from Gentile and kept us from recognizing family among us have been eliminated by a shepherd who saw no need for fences designed to keep sheep from straying. Those who stay close to him have found their home.
He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
The Good Shepherd gave his life for his sheep, and the shepherds he commissioned to keep us close to home until he returns will be judged alongside us on the last day—a time about which Paul’s disciple Timothy warned us (2 Timothy 3):
People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them.
Pope Francis has taken that warning to heart and can be seen sharing it with his fellow shepherds in the following clips from the beginning of his shift of duty. We shepherds of families should also be of that one heart—and be selfishly selfless in our rescue efforts.