Ancient Hebrew has a very small vocabulary. Consequently, Hebrew composition depends on context, nuance, and a multiplicity of meanings to communicate complex ideas. There are several examples of this in today’s Scripture readings.
Today’s first reading says, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.” (Jer. 23:1) In this context, the word “shepherds” meant kings or rulers. Jeremiah was prophesying against the unfaithful kings of Judah whose policies were leading the nation to political and religious disaster. God, speaking through the prophet, said, “I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s lineage. He shall reign as king and govern wisely; he shall do what is holy and right.” (Jer. 23:5)
This passage from Jeremiah was chosen as today’s first reading because it provides background for the Gospel’s use of the metaphors of an absent shepherd and the sheep. The Gospel says that Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk. 6:34) Unlike Jeremiah’s usage, the word “shepherd,” as used by Mark, refers to the religious leadership who were absent in the sense that they put themselves above the people. The Jerusalem Pharisees looked down on anyone who failed to follow the Pharisees’ stringent interpretation of the Law of Moses. Jesus was in this disenfranchised group, along with the majority of the population.
Jesus felt compassion for the crowds because he perceived them to be “like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk. 6:34) In our culture, sheep are not considered to be particularly intelligent animals. This is due to their instinctual herd mentality. Sheep flock together and often imitate one another’s behaviors for no apparent reason. To Americans, this flocking behavior looks like a sign of weakness or feeble-mindedness. To Jesus’ culture, sheep represented something quite different from the judgments we make about them.
During Jesus’ lifetime, two species of animals were bred on a widespread basis for their commercial value: sheep and goats. Goats are very hardy animals that require little care; they can easily tolerate fluctuations in temperatures and harsh conditions. Sheep are much less tolerant of harsh temperatures and conditions. Goats can be left outside unattended, but sheep must be kept overnight in a barn or pen for their protection. In Jesus’ culture, sheep were seen as a metaphor for patient suffering. When sheep were forgotten or neglected by their shepherd they suffered in silence, waiting patiently for someone to come to their rescue. When Jesus described the crowds as “like sheep without a shepherd,” he was referring to the enduring faith of the peasants who had no reliable or compassionate religious leadership.
In this passage of Mark’s Gospel and in Jesus’ parables, the “sheep” are not to be pitied because of their weakness but because of their stoic, patient suffering. This, too, might be a foreign concept in American culture. Why would anyone want to be patient in suffering? No one wants or deserves suffering. No one wants to be patient, but I think that the lack of patience in the world is tragic.
There are two clichéd ways in which we might understand the widespread lack of patience to be a lamentable circumstance. First, there are the anti-social consequences of impatience. Distracted driving, road rage, civil conflict, nationalist politics, and most family disputes are solely the result of a lack of patience by the people involved in those situations. Everyone disapproves of these behaviors in others, but not always in themselves. The second cliché about the generalized lack of patience is the fact that God is so patient with us; we, therefore, should be patient with one another. I would like to suggest, however, that we look beyond these prosaisms.
To be patient with one’s own weaknesses and failings, to be patient with the people around oneself, and to be patient with the imperfections of the world is a confession of faith in the Trinity. The impatience that people express toward one another and about world events is the result of not trusting that God will bring about good for God’s People.
Jesus is the preeminent example of patient suffering; for this reason, he is described in the Scriptures as the “lamb of God.” (Jn. 1:29) He suffered on the Cross, not because he enjoyed it, but because he was willing to wait patiently for the completion of God’s will. Our impatience with the people, things, and events around us, on the other hand, is the result of our lack of faith.
The lack of patience in the world is tragic; this is so because the lack of patience is a consequence of a lack of faith. Not even the absence of a good shepherd is sufficient reason to refuse to embrace the patient suffering required for admittance into the flock of the Lord.