The Catholic community in Steubenville was greatly cheered this past month by the celebration of an ordination to the priesthood. Ordinations are always a time of hope and joy for a diocese, but this one was especially so, as the ordinand was (Fr.) Jeremiah Hahn, who was much-beloved in the community not just for his illustrious family ties (son of Dr. Scott Hahn) but especially because of his well-earned reputation for kindness, virtue, piety, and sincerity.
Early summer is often a time for ordinations, and ordinations recall to mind the need for leadership within the body of Christ. Meanwhile, at this time in the Church year, we are working our way through the Gospel of Mark, approaching the record of the Feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6). In the next five weeks, we are going to take a break from Mark in order to meditate on John’s account of the same event (John 6), which will provide a lengthy opportunity to reflect on the theology and biblical basis for the Eucharist. This Sunday, however, we will only read the introduction of the account of the 5,000, which focuses primarily on the issue of leadership for God’s people rather than the Eucharist itself.
Since my full commentary on this set of readings is now available in print here, I will just provide the commentary on the first reading below:
1. Our first reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah:
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
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.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
as king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
“The LORD our justice.”
The “shepherds” of Israel are their leaders, primarily the king and his servants, but also the priests and prophets. King, priest, and prophet were the basic leadership roles in ancient Israelite society, and each role was bestowed on an individual through the ritual of anointing with oil.
In the days of Israel, the king, priests, and prophets of Judah were leading the people for their own gain, taking advantage of them in order to enrich themselves (see e.g. Jer 34:8-22). Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, promises the coming of a “righteous shoot” from the line of David, a just king who will lead God’s people according to God’s law and not simply by the principles of Realpolitik (political expediency). The word for “shoot” or “branch” here is tzemach; its synonym netzer is used in a similar context in Isaiah 11:1, another prophecy of this righteous son from the line of David.
Obviously, the authors of the New Testament recognized Jesus as the promised righteous “branch.” Matthew in particular sees it as striking that the promised netzer came from the town of netzereth (“branchtown” or “branchton”) and draws attention to providential “coincidence” in Matt 2:23.
This reading lays the groundwork for our Gospel passage, which will relate how Jesus perceived the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd.” The common people of Israel had no good leadership in Jesus’s day: the Herodian kings were half-Jewish imposters; the Highpriesthood was held by political appointees without the proper qualifications; and the Pharisaic rabbis comprised a corps of self-appointed religious teachers without authorization from God or the Scriptures. Jesus came to restore legitimate leadership. As Son of David and Son of God, he is King, Priest, and Prophet of Israel and appointed the Apostles as his officers and representatives.