I’m focusing on the alternative readings this week (ie the Jeremiah and Psalm 23 readings rather than the David cycle that we have been following) because it seems to me to link the Lectionary readings together more helpfully around the theme of shepherding.
Have a look at the readings. In the gospel story, Jesus has compassion on the crowds who have followed them into the wilderness ‘because they were like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34). Jesus takes on what Mark clearly intends as a shepherd role: teaching and feeding.
The passage from Jeremiah is one of 3 prophecies of hope: Yahweh will raise up good shepherds (as opposed to bad shepherds who were Judah’s rulers). Look how tenderly Jeremiah describes the care that the good shepherds exercise: ‘…and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 23: 4). Here is the compassion of Yahweh for lost or troubled sheep!
Provision and protection: Psalm 23 and the pattern of the Markan narrative
I find it striking that Mark groups three events that belong together (the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water and the healing of the sick at Gennesaret) in ways which carry unmistakeable echoes of Psalm 23.
We ought not to underestimate the importance of Jesus’ reaction to the crowd: Jesus adopts the shepherd role which carries all sorts of political and soteriological connotations (as we shall see). To suggest, then that there are some striking parallels between the structure of Mark’s narrative at this point and Psalm 23 is not to suggest that Mark is absolutely consciously invoking Psalm 23; it is merely to point out that the movement of Psalm 23 is a useful picture of the movement of the gospel passage.
Yahweh as Shepherd-King was an important and common image of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. It was a description of Yahweh that evoked the ties with David’s kingship: David is the shepherd who becomes king – the king with whom Yahweh enters into covenant. This is the covenant we find reported in 2 Samuel 7 (to which we will return in a moment).
Let’s look at the parallels. To start with, having Yahweh as Shepherd means that the flock will ‘not want’. Yahweh is the Shepherd-provider, who ‘makes the sheep lie down in green pastures’. Jesus, similarly, elects to be shepherd to the people in the wilderness (v34). Not only does Jesus begin to teach them (ie give them the ‘leading’ or direction they are lacking) but, in preparation for feeding them, orders the people to sit down on the green grass (v39). It is interesting that Mark mentions the green grass specifically: they are in the wilderness, but Jesus has led them to ‘green grass’ within that hostile environment. This is a place of peace, safety and provision: it is here that the desperate ‘sheep’ will be fed.
Psalm 23 goes on to celebrate Yahweh’s protection, even in ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Having been fed, the disciples in the story find themselves in life-threatening circumstances. They are trying to row across the lake to Bethsaida, but unable to make any headway because they are rowing into the wind. Mark, of course, attaches narrative symbolic significance to the lake crossings. Importantly, too, storms at sea evoke the primeval chaos of Genesis 1:2, and symbolise the power of the Strong Man. That they are ‘natural’ powers is Mark emphasising symbolically that the world (which ought to be the Kingdom of God) is in the grip of powers over which human beings have no control. This is the ‘valley of the shadow of death’.
Psalm 23 ends with a celebration of Yahweh’s goodness and mercy. To be part of Yahweh’s flock is to live a life that is truly blessed. It is to have Yahweh’s constant presence. Yahweh is the God-who-saves. The gospel passage closes with Jesus and the disciples landing at Gennesaret; the people’s response is to rush around and bring the sick people to him for healing. ‘Goodness and mercy will trail around after me all my life’, says the psalmist. In the gospel story, those who touch the trailing fringe of Jesus’ cloak are healed. Jesus is God’s goodness and mercy incarnate.
Jesus as Shepherd: Messiah and Davidic kingship
Why does Mark make a point of recording Jesus’ reaction to the crowds in terms of being like sheep without a shepherd? Note that his reaction is driven by compassion (Mark 6:34). ‘Compassion’ is an Exodus word. Compassion is the foundation of Yahweh’s ‘goodness and mercy’; Yahweh’s liberating salvation. The story of the Exodus itself starts with Yahweh ‘hearing the groans of the Hebrew slaves’; Yahweh’s compassion is engaged, so that Yahweh ‘looked upon the Israelites, and Yahweh took notice of them’ (Exodus 2:24). Yahweh saves because Yahweh is touched by suffering. Yahweh provides bread in the wilderness because Yahweh has ‘compassion’. The Greek word, splagchnizomai literally means ‘to be twisted up in the gut; to have one’s guts torn apart’. It designates an absolutely radical identification and empathy with the sufferer. The one who has compassion cannot rest until something is done to ease the suffering.
It is difficult to miss the echoes of the Exodus story here. Mark’s Jesus is the Son of God – the one whose person and actions mirror and portray God. Jesus is presented as God’s compassion and liberating power in action. His mission of the Kingdom is a mission of liberation from all that enslaves. The subsequent feeding story – the miraculous feeding of 5,000 Jewish men in the wilderness – echoes the story of Yahweh’s provision of manna in the wilderness. Jesus is present among the needy of Israel: it’s Exodus time!
The miraculous provision of food is a messianic act. Closely tied in with ‘Messiah’ (the title Mark gives Jesus in the opening verse of the gospel) is kingship – and specifically, Davidic kingship. We’re into the Messianic Secret motif, in other words, which runs so strongly through the gospel.
At issue, as you know, is the sort of Messiah Jesus is. Jesus hammers out his messianic identity in opposition to the Davidic warrior-king messiah that was the subject of fevered popular expectation. The Way of the Cross is the antithesis of this version of ‘Messiah’. Jesus resists the title, ‘King of the Jews’ in Mark’s gospel precisely because it carries the wrong connotations.
Look at Mark’s account of Jesus before the Council (14: 533ff) and then before Pilate (15: 1ff). The accusations against him are different. The crux of the matter for the Council is that Jesus claims to be ‘the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One’ (14:61) – which of course, is precisely who Mark claims Jesus is in 1:1! It is a charge of blasphemy. When he is presented to Pilate, however, the Council has clearly accused him of styling himself ‘the King of the Jews’ (cf Pilate’s question in 15:2). To secure a conviction in a Roman court, in other words, they accuse Jesus of insurrection and treason (the charge against Barabbas). Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ effectively means, ‘Are you claiming to be the Davidic king – the so-called rightful Jewish ruler rather than Herod?’
For the Council, as for the people, ‘Messiah’ means ‘Davidic king’. Yet in 12: 35-37 Jesus explicitly unravels that connection: ‘Messiah’ means to be David’s Lord, not David’s son. In other words, Jesus’ messiahship will not be defined by David, but will be significantly different. Jesus will give his own content to the title (the Way of the Cross), rather than being defined and shaped by the hope for a restored Davidic king.
The prophetic promise (2 Samuel 7: 1-16/Jeremiah 23: 1-6/Psalm 89)
Isn’t interesting to note how Mark downplays the notion of Jesus as king? Luke makes the connection between Jesus and David as explicit as possible in his infancy narrative. Matthew introduces Jesus as the Son of David (Matthew 1:1). Mark, by contrast, treats the whole issue differently: he distances Jesus from Davidic-style kingship.
I have suggested that the key to this is the Messianic Secret motif. The Davidic kingship tradition is too dangerous; it has a seductive power that runs far too close to the popular messianic expectation that Jesus wishes to avoid. It seems to me that we ought to see Jesus talking about the people being shepherd-less as Mark’s way of dealing with the whole Davidic tradition and his unease as being shaped by the political and religious context in which Jesus was living and ministering. Let me try and unpack this briefly.
The Davidic covenant is outlined in 2 Samuel 7. Davidic kingship becomes the lens through which Israel understands its national relationship to Yahweh. It’s safety and future is guaranteed by the importance of the Temple and Jerusalem (cf vv 10-11), central to which is the king himself. The king is the recipient of Yahweh’s steadfast love (vv 15-16) which will not be taken away as it had been in the case of Saul.
This is significant. When Israel demands a king of Samuel (1 Samuel 9), Yahweh accedes to their demands. Yet it is clear that Israel has chosen wrongly: they have rejected Yahweh as king (1 Samuel 8: 7-8). In so doing, they have lost their security. They will get the kings they wish – but they will be ‘bad shepherds’. In David, however, they get a good shepherd-king. The image of king as shepherd is the self-description Yahweh chooses. In promising that David will have a perpetual dynasty, Yahweh promises everlasting protection for Israel.
That is why the Exile is so devastating! Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed. Yahweh’s promises have failed. That is the agony at the heart of Psalm 89, in which the psalmist accuses the people of breaking covenant, not with Yahweh, but with David! That, says the psalmist, is why Exile has happened. Yahweh’s covenant is not with Israel as a whole, but with David in particular. The people have broken covenant with David and are reaping the consequences.
The Exile is the crisis of monarchy: the monarchy fails to deliver the promises of peace and security given to David by Yahweh in 2 Samuel 7. The exiles return, but the Davidic monarchy is not re-established. In the time of Jesus, the province of Judaea is ruled by the Herodians – client kings of Rome and false kings in the eyes of the people and the religious establishment. Their hope is in the coming Messiah – the Davidic king who will re-establish the centrality of Jerusalem, Temple worship and the Law. Israel will be free and independent.
The people, in other words, are looking for a shepherd. And here, at the outset of the feeding miracle, Jesus clearly elects to be their shepherd – but not the shepherd they are looking for! They are looking for a Davidic shepherd-king; Jesus will be their king, but a king whose kingship is defined by the Way of the Cross.
This, I am suggesting, is Mark’s solution to the whole vexed question of the monarchy that has been in play for over a thousand years – ever since Israel demanded king. There is only one rightful king: God. How is God to rule? Through the Kingdom that Jesus preaches and inaugurates. That rule is the rule of peace and plenty – of salvation and provision in the wilderness. And Jesus will make it possible… through the cross.
From palace to household: Ephesians 2: 11-22
It is interesting that ‘kingdom’ is not a major Pauline category for speaking about the Church. It may be that it carries the wrong sort of connotations: it is too readily understood in the narrow terms of Jewish nationalistic hopes, and Paul is wanting something that better expresses the radical shift accomplished in the gospel relationships between Jews and Gentiles.
Whatever the reason, here in Ephesians, Paul talks about the household of God (v 19). Later on in the letter, he will go on to speak about the Christian household (5:21ff) and family relationships. The connection is not coincidental. The Christian Church, in Paul’s view, is like a Christian household. People are no longer ‘strangers and aliens’ (v19) but citizens with the saints and members of God’s household.
There is a great deal that could be said about the passage in this week’s epistle. Paul is talking to Gentile Christians who have been ‘aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’ (v12). Those who were ‘them’ have become ‘us’.
It is easy to forget that Paul is not talking about Gentiles being incorporated into Israel (ie becoming Jews) but that both Jews and Gentiles together have been brought from ‘far and near’ and made one in Christ. His point is not one of Jewish superiority; it is about the great levelling of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ. God’s intention, he says, is ‘create a new humanity in place of the two’ (v18).
The only point I want to make, therefore, in the light of the Lectionary texts for the week, is that Paul sees humanity united in Christ not under a king, but in a New Adam. This is about re-creation, in other words – something more radical than the establishment of rule by power. Jesus is King and Lord (cf Philippians 2: 6-11), but is so because he is first the Second Adam who brings into being a completely new humanity. God’s household, he says, is not the palace of a king so much as the far more intimate Divine Home, into which we are incorporated as adopted sons and daughters of God.
Jesus as Shepherd, Provider, New Moses, Second Adam, Healer and Brother – and all, as Paul reminds us, through his blood. The Way of the Cross is the means by which God’s intentions for creation are brought to fruition. How incredible – and how unexpected!