I am no one’s sheep and I do not need anyone to shepherd me or to tell me how to live my life! I think and therefore I am and I take control of my life and my destiny.
These notions of freedom and self-determination turn our human hearts away from the one who reveals Himself as the one who is the I AM, before time began and after time will cease for each one of us.
Our very fragile, brittle and empty illusion of control is incompatible to any notion of being taught by anybody, even Jesus.
Yet without this reference to the God who is transcendent; God who is both with us but also outside of time and space, it is not possible to reach into our own intrinsic human dignity and vocation into eternity.
Without reference to God as the divine origin and purpose of the universe and all that is, there is something lacking in our understanding, in our judgements on how we should act, and in the depths of our hearts a great restlessness.
As Jesus the Christ continues to speak to us from our Church and as Jesus continues to walk in our streets, I believe he continues also to have compassion on our empty pursuits.
As long as we continue to find our identity and our value in the things that are passing away, whether it be the glitzy glamour of idols or the science of extending youth and life, we have based our I am on shifting sands.
How easy it is to lose ourselves in such empty endeavours. When the illusion fails us and all our control melts before the storm, the emptiness and longing that remain often lead to anxiety, fear and depression.
The outer universe of atoms and galaxies as well as the inner universe of our human existence, cannot be understood without reference to God as the source and ultimate goal of our journeys through time to eternity.
If we remain caught up in our illusions, we are apt to dismiss today’s gospel as an irrelevance! However, the fact that ‘Jesus took pity on them … and set himself to teach them at some length’ contains a lesson for us that is of the first importance.
It is very easy to think of Jesus taking pity on other people. Sinners, poor people, sick people, hungry people, people in mourning, paralytics, outcasts, people possessed by evil spirits: in each of these cases we can think of Jesus taking pity and then either doing something about it or teaching us about our duties of pity.
He pitied sinners and forgave them, he pitied the sick and healed them; he pitied the widow and raised her son to life; he had pity for outcasts and made them welcome at his table; and he preached that we, his disciples, should take pity on the hungry, the poor, and those who are suffering.
But the pity he shows today does not fit this pattern. He takes pity on the whole people, rich and poor, healthy and sick, and the form that his pity takes is teaching.
The idea that Jesus takes pity on people because they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’, and the idea that teaching could be an expression of pity and mercy, are two ideas that are very alien to us.
On the one hand, we do not like the idea that we need to be taught: we are in love with the notion of our own autonomy. This is expressed in the atheist sentiment: don’t walk in front, I may not follow; don’t walk behind, I may not lead; let’s just walk beside each other!
On the other hand, teaching conjures up someone who knows what we do not and tells us, implicitly showing up our imperfection and teaching also seems to be just a technical skill: imparting boring skills be they how to cook, do arithmetic, a language, or car-maintenance. Teaching is no more than ‘transferring skills’ to use modern educational jargon.
Yet, modern society tries to live in a God-free zone and make out that the divine is an optional extra, no more than a personal choice. While, at the same time, the ’body, mind, spirit’ shelves of bookshops groan under the number of books by lifestyle consultants that promise happiness by a mix of diets, mind-games, and ways of re-arranging the furniture in your home. The God-free zone is also a happiness-free zone.
We only become fully human when we recognise that there is more to life than the sum of the bits we can manage, the bits we can cope with, and the bits we can see.
This recognition is rarely a blinding flash of understanding that there is a ‘God-shaped aperture’ in our existence, rather it is, more often than not, a painful discovery that we would almost be glad to avoid.
That little instant in which all our very fragile, brittle and empty illusion of control have tumbled into the abyss of chaos.
Yet in this discovery we need also to appreciate the wisdom who teaches us; here lies the mission of Jesus the prophet and teacher.
He teaches us to become aware of the deeper needs of our humanity: to see ourselves as God’s children, to work together to build the kingdom, and the need to journey through life towards our true home. Jesus both teaches us of our fundamental dependency on God, and of the love that God constantly offers us.
We as a community continue that teaching: not just transferring skills such as how to pray or how to help the poor, but teaching in the sense of bringing people to wisdom. This is the wisdom that knows that our lives are incomplete without acknowledging who we are as creatures within a God-given universe.
The people hurried after him, and he set about teaching them at length. Here is a hard question: are we willing to sit as students at the feet of Jesus and be taught at length?