TODAY I suggest that we reflect on GOOD LEADERSHIP. This is very timely, especially as we prepare to elect new leaders for our country in just about ten more months. It is made even more timely by the fact that we are still going through a national and global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is expressing God’s disappointment with the anointed leaders of Israel. He says, they have allowed the people to be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. We have the same imagery being repeated in the Gospel. Mark tells us Jesus had pity on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
The setting is the terrible tragedy that has brought shock to the whole province of Galilee. Herod Antipas has just ordered the beheading of the prophet John the Baptist. Why? Because the prophet dared to speak on behalf of God, the true leader of Israel.
The parallelism is very obvious in the Gospel. Mark has just described earlier in the same chapter (6) the headless body of John being buried by his disciples. Now he portrays the vast crowd that is desperately following Jesus around like a sheep without a shepherd, like a body without a head, like a people without a leader.
Mark tells us how Jesus was moved with pity when he saw the crowd following their boat on foot along the lakeshore. Because the people could see where the boat was heading to, they ran ahead and got there before Jesus and company could even dock at the shore. He had purposely led his apostles away after returning from a mission so that they could take a rest. But the restless crowd would not let go of them. It’s as though they were saying, “Yes Lord, we know you need rest, but we beg you, please give us some rest too!” They were like a whole flock of lost sheep. They were like a headless body, a people desperately seeking for a leader.
The prophet Jeremiah ends his oracle in our first reading with a hopeful prophecy. He says the days are coming when God will anoint a true leader for his people, one who will shepherd Israel on behalf of God, the true Shepherd, one who will dare to do what is right and just, one who will make his people “dwell in security.”
We hear an echo of this prophecy in our Psalm today, the famous Psalm 23. You realize only later in the Psalm that the one who is talking is not just the people talking about the Lord as its heavenly leader, but rather about an earthly leader being chosen to lead them on behalf of the heavenly Shepherd. He says, “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes; YOU ANOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL, my cup overflows.” People who were anointed in those times were prepared for leadership.
This Psalm has so much to teach us about the qualities of a good leader, of one who leads on behalf of God. How do we know if the Lord is truly the one shepherding his people? The Psalmist gives two signs: first, he says BECAUSE THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD, I SHALL NOT WANT. Meaning, a good leader makes his people feel secure, rested, nourished, refreshed, and guided on the right path. He does not abandon them to the wolves to protect himself.
The second sign is I FEAR NO EVIL. Meaning, when the sheep are able to face crises and difficult times, when they are able to “walk in the dark valley” with confidence, because they feel his presence. A good shepherd is not someone who sows fear in the minds and hearts of his own sheep. He does not use his rod and his staff to terrorize them. The rod and the staff are supposed to give them courage. He does not use them to hurt his sheep but to rescue them; he uses them only against the wolves that attack his flock.
In our Gospel, Mark tells us how Jesus becomes the head of a headless body, the shepherd of a shepherdless flock, not only by leading them but also BY MENTORING AND FORMING OTHER LEADERS who will shepherd the flock after the heart of God, the true Shepherd.
You see, one other characteristic of good leaders is, THEY DO NOT MAKE THEMSELVES INDISPENSABLE or irreplaceable. An empowering kind of leadership multiplies itself. John the Baptist was ready for the worst because he had prepared Jesus, and Jesus himself could ascend into heaven because he knew he had prepared his apostles to take over. Look, even after 2000 years our succession of leaders continues despite all the odds. Leaders come and go, but God’s work continues because they know God is the real leader, the only shepherd.
Mark portrays Jesus as a leader who works hard and teaches those whom he mentors for leadership to also work hard. But he also makes sure THEY FIND TIME FOR SOLITUDE, FOR REST AND PRAYER. They had just returned from a mission but he gives them time to reflect on their experience, to report to him and to have what we call today a “debriefing process.”
Finally, for Jesus, the good leader has to have the compassionate heart of a true shepherd, not the calloused heart of a mercenary or a hireling. He is not a tyrant who commands fear. His heart is moved by the sight of people who are scattered, lost and disoriented. He becomes restless himself when his people are restless, when they move about without a common goal or direction, when they feel lost, when they suffer from fear and anxiety.
Let this be our prayer in next few months ahead of us, “Lord, be at our side with your rod and your staff that give us courage….anoint for us a good leader after your heart. May nothing but your goodness and kindness follow us all the days of our lives. Let us dwell securely in your presence in the years to come. AMEN.”
(Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 18 July 2021, Mark 6:30-34)