16th Sunday Year B
All organisations need leaders. Good leaders unite the people, give them a sense of purpose; and over time the organisation grows from strength to strength. On the other hand, weak leaders disillusion the people, bring division, scatter the people; and over time weaken or even destroy the organisation. It is the same with our Church. We have many leaders in our Church – some good, some weak.
Divisions has existed among the faithful since the very early days. It is a trait of our darkened human nature. In Old Testament times, there was the division between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The First Reading last week tells the story of Amos, a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah, who was called by God to preach to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos was rejected by the religious leaders of Israel, who asked him to return to Judah. In New Testament time, the division between Jews and Gentiles was very pronounced. The Jews believed they are the chosen race. Only Jews may worship in Jerusalem; and even in the Jerusalem temple, there were designated areas exclusive to the Jews. As the gentile Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [the Jews] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (Jn 4:20). Division persists in our Church to this day. Sometimes, we see church groups with very clear designated “territories” that other groups should not infringe upon. And if a new group of volunteers offer their services to an established “territory” of another group, instead of the existing group welcoming new ideas and new workers, the new volunteers are sometime viewed as a threat and rejected. The root cause of this is weak leadership exacerbated by self-centredness and a narrow-minded mindset.
It is in the context of weak leadership and divisions that St Paul offers his exemplary leadership to the people of God. St Paul was a Jew and a Roman citizen, called by God to evangelise to the Gentiles. The diversity of St Paul’s background and calling is a stark reminder to all leaders of the Church today, clergy and laity alike. We care called to provide good leadership to all people of God, whatever the group, ethnicity, nationality; or in fact, whether the person belongs to our Church or not. Referring to the Jew-Gentile division, St Paul observed in the Second Reading this week, that Jesus “has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (verse 14-16).
The First Reading this week is from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet living in the land of Judah around 600BC. During this time, the Jewish religious leaders were weak leaders, not fulfilling their duties as the shepherds of their people. In the First Reading, God issued this stern warning: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! … It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” (verse 1, 2) Assuring the people, God promised that He himself will become their Shepherd, to gather his people back to their pastures (verse 3, see also Ezekiel 34:11-12). The passage then goes on to foretell the coming of a Saviour from the lineage of David, who will be that Shepherd, a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus came into the world.
Jesus is the quintessential good leader all of us should model our leadership to, whether we are leaders in the Church, at work, at social settings or in our homes. When St Paul exemplify his good leadership in the Second Reading, he was quoting and modelling himself to Jesus. The Gospel passage this week tells the story of how Jesus ministered to the people. John the Baptist, Jesus’ beloved cousin, has just been beheaded by King Harod (Mk 5:17-29). Understandably, Jesus needed some quiet time with those closest to Him, to mourn and to grief. He said to the Apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (verse 31) “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” (verse 32) However, the people needed Him. They tracked Him down and as Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (verse 34) The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” proclaims Jesus to be the fulfilment of the prophecy in the First Reading. But perhaps more importantly, the story illustrates to us what true leadership means. It is not an ego-centric endeavour for us to fulfil only at a time and place convenient to us. It is to die to ourselves every day for the good of the people we serve. In the Gospel, in spite of Jesus being in mourning, He felt compassion for the people and ministered to them.
As we read how the crowd deprived Jesus of His quiet time in the Gospel story this week, in our spiritual journey, we must nevertheless recognise the importance of spending quite time with the Lord – to rest, to reflect and to recharge. As leaders, if we do not invest in our own spiritual well-being, we cannot be good leaders. We need time not just to rest, but also to pray, to reflect and form ourselves. We need to build up the repository of God’s grace within our soul. Jesus did this often in the Gospel, often making special efforts to do it. For example, leaving the Apostles, He would wake up early, “while it was still very dark, … went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mk 1:35) Some leaders make the mistake of labouring constantly without taking time for spiritual recharge. If we do this, we risk burning out; and perhaps more dangerously, depleting our spiritual reservoir such that we are no longer equipped to withstand the inevitable trials that leadership entails.
Let us conclude this week’s Scripture reflection by a self-reflection of our own leadership. Am I a weak or selfish leader like Amaziah in last week’s First Reading? Or am I a good and selfless leader like Jesus and St Paul and this week’s Second Reading and Gospel? Do I take time to reflect, rest and recharge so that I may be a better leader, and a better servant to God? My brothers and sisters, let us go in peace to love and to serve. Amen.