Proper 11, Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 22, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Jeremiah 23:1-6Psalm 23Ephesians 2:11-22Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

By Paul Nancarrow

Jeremiah 23:1-6

This passage begins in the same prophet-speaking-truth-to-power vein as the Amos passage from last week, but then it heads toward a different conclusion. Jeremiah cries woe upon the “shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture,” that is, the kings and nobles who are charged by God with caring for God’s people, and who have betrayed that charge by exploiting the people instead.

Rather than being agents of God’s justice and peace for the people, the corrupt rulers have “driven the people away” from God, not least by their worship of other gods in the official Jerusalem cult. For this reason God says to the rulers through the prophet “I will attend to you for your evil doings,” promising to do for the rulers, now in an ironic and threatening way, what the rulers have failed to do for the people.

But where Amos predicted disaster and exile for the whole people, Jeremiah preaches God’s judgment on the rulers for the sake of the relief and restoration of the “remnant” of the people. Because the corrupt rulers have scattered the people, Jeremiah promises that God will be the one to gather the people, to “bring them back to their fold,” their land, where “they shall be fruitful and multiply.” In place of the corrupt rulers, God “will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them,” and who will see to their security, safety, and well-being.

Jeremiah caps the prophecy with a specifically Davidic element, representing an early development of what would become the messianic hope, promising that the future, properly shepherd-like king will be “a righteous Branch” of the family tree of David, who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” and bring to a reunited Israel and Judah both safety and salvation. The promise of a future shepherd is evoked as fulfilled in the passage from Mark below.

Psalm 23

Far too much has been said about Psalm 23 — historically, literary-critically, theologically, devotionally — to be summed up here. For the purposes of this day in the lectionary, the psalm functions as an elaboration of the fundamental goodness of life manifested in and for those who follow God as their shepherd.

Jeremiah promises that, in place of false shepherds who rule only to exploit the people, God the good shepherd will gather and restore the people, and will provide for them shepherds who will properly be God’s agents for justice and peace — and Psalm 23 serves here as an idealized portrayal of what life among the restored people will be like. None will be in want; there will be food and water enough for all; the path of righteousness will be available to all; even the threat of death will not provoke fear or failure of trust in God’s provision; goodness and loving-kindness will be the basic qualities of daily life.

Though idealized — perhaps precisely because it is idealized — this depiction of life under God’s shepherding can be a source of hope and motivation: it evokes what Whitehead calls a “propositional feeling,” a “lure” toward a possible future, a feeling of being drawn toward the accomplishment of the ideal depicted. Because Psalm 23 is written in the first person, it is often read as a personal statement of hope in God; joined as it is here with the Jeremiah and Mark passages, it presents also a community statement, a social ideal, a shared hope in the goodness of life God longs to realize in all people.

Ephesians 2:11-22

One of the things I have found most helpful about the application of process thought to Christian theology is Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of “Peace.” Whitehead calls Peace the “Harmony of harmonies,” and “the harmony of the soul’s activities with ideal aims that lie beyond any personal satisfaction.” Peace is “a trust in the efficacy of Beauty,” where Beauty is understood as maximum intensity of feeling along with maximum harmony of feeling; Peace might even be called the Beauty of beauties.

Peace is felt in the “life and motion” of the soul; and it is therefore to be distinguished from a kind of false Peace, a “bastard substitute” for Peace, that Whitehead calls “Anæsthesia.” Peace in Whitehead’s sense is not dullness or inertia or cessation of activity, but is a dynamic experience of value that can be enjoyed for itself but also points beyond itself to even wider experiences of values.

I find this notion of Peace to be extremely helpful in understanding references to peace in the Bible, especially in passages like this reading from Ephesians. “Christ is our peace,” the Ephesians author proclaims, and the Whiteheadian notion of Peace allows me to see in that proclamation an assertion that the ideal aims of God are coordinated in the life and work of Jesus in such a way as to provide for me in my life a dynamic experience of value, that is immediately relevant to me but also points beyond what I am and do now, to what I could be and do by God’s grace.

This passage speaks in particular of the peace Christ made between Jews and Gentiles, between those inside the Covenant and those outside the Covenant, between those whose souls’ activities were coordinated by “the law with its commandments and ordinances” and those whose souls’ activities were, the author asserts, essentially uncoordinated, “without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

In place of this bifurcation of aims and resultant “hostility,” Christ “proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near”; that is, Jesus in his life and ministry — “in his flesh” — demonstrated a harmony between his activities and God’s aims that can be equally available to Jew and Gentile, irrespective of Covenant membership, and deriving solely from following Jesus and emulating in one’s own life the divine ideals revealed in his.

More generally, beyond the historical question of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Jewish-Christian movement, this passage promises that the peace proclaimed by Christ grants “access in one Spirit to the Father,” or, in process terms, promises that the dynamic experience of value derived from emulating Jesus is not simply the work of the individual soul, but is also the work of God in the soul, God communicating initial aims for moments of experience that are specially adjusted by God for that experient in that moment to have the most intense and harmonious feeling of value that is possible to have.

Moreover, God coordinates the aims given to related experients, so that their several souls’ activities are harmonized together with ideal aims beyond simply personal satisfaction, leading to growth in community in and through growth as individuals: “In Christ the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” In this way I think the process understanding of Peace allows a deep reading of the Ephesians passage, and can prompt interpreters today to ask how the coordinations and values of our own faith communities do or do not harmonize our souls’ activities with the ideal aims of God.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The key line in this little catena of verses from Mark is “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The passage is composed of the few verses immediately before, and the few verses immediately after, the story of the feeding of the five thousand and its coda of Jesus walking on the sea. The feeding miracle we will hear about in next week’s gospel reading, followed by four weeks of teaching on the symbolism of bread, all taken from John’s gospel; not until Proper 17 will we return to the text of Mark, by that time with the story of walking on the water left far behind.

What we are left with, then, is little more than the “connective tissue” Mark originally intended to bridge gaps between major stories; verses that are more or less summaries of the general kind of ministry Jesus was doing when he wasn’t doing something more specifically significant. Set apart and given attention on their own, however, as they are here, these “connective” verses are importantly illustrative of the origin of Jesus’ acts of ministry in his compassion, and how his compassion is a revelation of the compassion of God.

A crowd gathers around Jesus and the Twelve after they return from their preaching mission, so that “they had no leisure even to eat”; and, in order to have time to reflect and understand what has just happened to them, Jesus calls them away to a place where they can have some privacy. When they arrive, however, they find the crowd already there, longing to hear words of comfort and encouragement in Jesus’ teaching. And Jesus, rather than being impatient or exasperated with losing his alone-time, has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. So he steps into the role of being their shepherd, giving them the teaching and, by extension of the story into the Genessaret verses, the healing that he has to give.

Jesus thus fulfills the promise made in Jeremiah and elaborated in Psalm 23: he is the “righteous Branch” of David raised up by God to be the shepherd who makes manifest the justice, righteousness, right-relationship, nourishing, anointing, healing, salvation, and loving-kindness of God. It is this general character of Jesus’ compassion as revealing God’s compassion that underlies and actuates his specific works of ministry, healing this woman or this girl, teaching in this synagogue, feeding these people, rescuing these fishermen from storm, confronting these scribes and Pharisees on the use and the misuse of tradition.

The general character of resting in God’s compassion, and therefore also being open to manifesting God’s compassion, is shared by Jesus’ disciples, including Jesus’ disciples today, when they look to the ideals embodied in Jesus and strive to embody them in specific compassionate acts according to their own abilities and circumstances. One value of taking these “connective” verses out of their context and attending to them on their own is that their very lack of specific detail makes it easier for readers like us to imagine ourselves doing these Jesus-like things in the contexts open to us. The reading, therefore, in spite of its odd fusing of two bits of narrative, works as a whole to give us a “propositional feeling” of how we might manifest God’s compassion, as Jesus did, in our own works and ways.