THE SHEPHERD, GENTLE AND FIERCE – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 11, Year B; Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (RC)

July 18, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
2 Samuel 7:1-14a or Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 89:20-37 or Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56



Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6 (1)
Ephesians 2:13-18
Mark 6:30-34

No psalm is more beloved than Psalm 23 and few verses in the Bible are better known than its opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps 23:1).

Among Christians in North America, this biblical song is probably most often associated with death. Mourners draw consolation from its two powerful images–the shepherd who offers us green pastures and leads us through the darkest valley; and the host who prepares a feast and welcomes us to live forever in the house of the Lord.

This Sunday the Lectionary juxtaposes this comforting psalm with two other Scripture passages in which the image of shepherd figures prominently. These two readings help to widen and enrich our understanding of the divine Shepherd’s faithful love that extends it beyond our personal concerns and needs to the hungers and yearnings of the entire human family.

Today’s reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah uses the shepherd image in relation to the political and social life of Israel at a time of crisis. It begins with a stern condemnation of corrupt shepherds—specifically, the last four kings of Israel whose misdeeds played a role in bringing about the Babylonian exile. The shepherding God stands against powerful leaders who abuse their authority in ways that harm the sheep.

The prophecy continues, however, with a word of hope for a nation torn asunder first by malfeasance on the part of its own leaders and then subsequently by foreign conquest and exile. The Holy One will attend to the flock and provide shepherds after God’s own heart to rule with righteousness and justice. The divine Shepherd’s concern for the care of the sheep seeks to form a beloved community.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, the ministry of Jesus is presented in the light of both of today’s texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. When Jesus stepped on shore and saw the crowd, “he had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). One commentator has remarked that the Greek verb translated here as “had compassion” (NRSV) could be rendered as “felt it in his gut.” The English word “compassion,” derived from the Latin word to “suffer with,” reflects that same kind of emotional depth that is deeply entwined with those who are lost, last, or least. Jesus is a shepherd whose care springs from the heart.

When Jesus caught sight of the crowd, his disciples had just returned from their first missionary effort, and they were now on their way to a well-deserved time of rest and nourishment. Yes, we all need to practice self-care by taking a break from work and responsibility. Yet as parents of small children know, there are times when those breaks just have to wait while they attend to the needs of the young lives entrusted to their care.

The response of Jesus to the crowd was immediate and deeply personal, flowing from his compassion for people who hungered for God’s word and God’s healing. As he attended to their needs, he was forming a new people that marked the coming of God’s kin-dom. In his shepherding ministry he gathered the poor, the sick, the outcasts—all those on whose God’s love and favor rested.

As we sing and pray Psalm 23 today, we rightly claim God as our shepherd and express our trust in God’s faithful love—but that’s only part of the story. As we sing of “my” shepherd, we do so as part of a collective “I” that includes the entire human family—all who stand in need of God’s compassionate care. God is both the gentle shepherd that provides comfort and the fierce guardian who strikes down the powerful.

When Christians sing this psalm, we not only recall the compassionate heart of Jesus but we also take up his call to care for others as he did. We continue his mission of announcing the coming of God’s kin-dom with gentle love for those in need and with ferocity for the cause of righteousness against the powers that perpetuate injustice.

A Hymn for Today: “Shepherd Me, O God”

Hymn Society member Marty Haugen is a prolific hymn writer and composer with more than 400 published works. While he has written primarily for Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgies, Haugen himself belongs to a United Church of Christ congregation and his work appears in the hymnals of numerous denominations throughout the English-speaking world.

This adaptation of Psalm 23 is a responsorial setting, in which the congregation sings the refrain while the verses are sung by cantor(s) or choir. Although this very personal text uses first person singular pronouns, the refrain is designed to be sung by the entire congregation and in this way transforms the “me” to an “us”—a community guided by the divine Shepherd “beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears,
from death into life.

God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want,
I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love,
I walk by the quiet waters of peace.

Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul,
you lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth,
my spirit shall sing the music of your name.

Though I should wander the valley of death,
I fear no evil, for you are at my side,
your rod and your staff, my comfort and my hope.

You have set me a banquet of love
in the face of hatred,
crowning me with love beyond my power to hold.

Surely your kindness and mercy follow me
all the days of my life.
I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.

Text: Marty Haugen, © 1986, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857

Image Credit: Psalm 23, John August Swanson, 2010

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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