When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind: / The stalk of grain that forms no ear / can yield no flour; Even if it could, / strangers would swallow it.
At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”
The readings today afford two very different perspectives from which to observe and to appraise our current situation — and perhaps the situation of any time and place. First we hear from Hosea of the rudderless and even chaotic state of Israel in his time. The image is that of sowing an environment that, through its lack of boundaries and focus will unleash all the most destructive and violent impulses of humankind. This is an Israel without the “light” yoke of Torah to guide them. They have created kings and princes without the guidance of the law, without adverting to the call of God and the good. Those in power and those who enable them have replaced the covenant with the Lord with silver and gold, with their craving for personal wealth and comfort. Without a yoke to harness their energies, they shall reap the whirlwind of the demonic which seeks only its own wealth, power, and control over others. Instead of a people devoted to the covenant with God and so to God’s will and ways, they become a crowd or collective that seeks only personal autonomy and gratification. The perspective here is that of the “prophetic” observer, one who stands outside of the furor and chaos in order to afford the Divine perspective and to issue Divine judgment.
In the gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus observing something very similar in the crowds around him. He recognizes that they are “troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” The diagnosis is the same as that of Hosea. Human society without a shepherd, without what Jesus will later call his “yoke” which is a deepening of the covenant with the Lord, will be “thrown” aimlessly into the world and experience itself as troubled and abandoned. There is a powerful difference, however, in the perspective of Jesus. We are told that as Jesus receives the abandonment of the crowds, “his heart is moved with pity for them.” As we learn later in Jesus’ life, he comes to recognize that he is the good shepherd, that is, he is called to shepherd those who are without a shepherd. This is what leads the author of the gospel to have him turn to those who will continue his life and mission, his disciples, and to tell them that they must pray that there be laborers to continue his mission throughout time.
I have a good friend whom I find to be very challenging to my tendencies to be a detached observer. He will often remind me that to recognize the truth of something, to recognize the need to which that truth points and to do nothing, is “bullshit.” When the gospel tells us that Jesus’ heart is moved with pity, it is not describing a mere emotion but rather a source of action. While the detached observer sees and remains distant for the sake of his or her perspective, Jesus moves towards and into the crowd. Of course, that overwhelms him at times and he must seek places of solitude and prayer, places of intimacy and friendship apart from the crowd. Yet, he is impelled by his compassion and love to “shepherd” those he recognizes as shepherd-less.
Just now as I am writing, the news comes through that all 12 boys and their assistant soccer coach have been rescued from the cave in Thailand. This has happened as a result of extraordinary international collaboration, extraordinary wisdom and insight, and incredible courage on the part of so many. There are divers who spent a week in the cave with the boys and their coach; there are those who made the perilous journey to and from their location many times, including one who lost his life; and there are those who together made the courageous and terrifying decision to bring out the boys and their coach at this time and in this way. The world’s attention and response has been riveted by the peril and the need of these boys, and the response was swift, decisive, and effective. How can such a circumstance, which if any begs for a sense of impotence in the face of its danger and magnitude, evoke rather such a potent response? And how is it, in contrast, that so many ordinary and unspectacular events of everyday life that reflect our chaos and fear as people and societies leave us feeling so impotent?
In the first third of the 19th century, Theodore James Ryken visited the frontiers of the United States. There he was deeply affected by his experience of what he perceived as the need of Native Americans to be shepherded. He, as Jesus, is “moved with pity.” And, as Jesus, he not only has the feeling, but “is moved” by it. He is moved to return to Europe and, despite obstacles at every turn, to found a brotherhood, a community of men who are, in turn, to move from their own homes and countries into the world as laborers in the service of the Native Americans. There are many points at which it would have only made sense for Ryken to give up, to recognize that in the face of so many needs of the world that he was impotent. He refuses, however, to succumb to that temptation.
Interestingly enough Ryken’s brothers, until the late 20th century, never get to the Native Americans. Circumstances bring them, instead, into the world of immigrant England and America. They become shepherds for the children of immigrants who would otherwise be sheep without shepherds. Ryken responds and acts, but the ends of that action are not within his power. Transcendent form potency is the ability to “be moved” by reality and its needs, and to act in response to it. It is then a willingness to do what one can and to trust in the providence of God that it will be of use as God intends.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau believes that most of us human beings do not desire freedom and detest it in others, so we devote our energy to doing what we do not want to do in order to, at least sometimes, have our way and, much of the time, prevent others from having theirs. We are, he says, “willing to endure any servitude in order to command.” Jesus teaches that human freedom is very much the opposite of this. Instead of enduring servitude in order to command others, we experience freedom (and potency) as we become servants of reality.
In the course of speaking with others, I have powerfully learned the limits of diagnosis without response or action. Many times I encounter persons who are stuck in their lives and yet have multiple diagnoses of their condition from psychological professionals. All the diagnosis is doing for them, however, is objectifying themselves. They become their diagnosis, and so they further lose contact with their human freedom and potency to be otherwise. My presence and response to who they are far beyond their diagnosis can sometimes help them to experience that deeper identity as well. In this place they are a freedom and a potency far beyond the imposed limits of their medical or social identity.
It is not a new or merely contemporary phenomenon that people, societies, and cultures lose their way. From before the time of Hosea and of Jesus, crowds that are moved by merely collective identities, moved only by the pulsations and values of their cultures, are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is “moved with pity” because he lives out the heart of God in our regard. He realizes that his vocation is to be a shepherd who is a laborer on behalf of the crowd. Their state is a call to him to live his vocation among them. So it is with us. I find myself readily overwhelmed and discouraged as I experience the state of our society. The initial experience is one of impotence, what is there to be done? Yet, that is the wrong perspective. What right did Brother Ryken have to think he could make any difference to the plight of the Native Americans in the United States? Yet, in response, he got to work. Much of the work must have felt so unrelated to that initial impulse and call in him. It was seeking money, searching for men to join him, fighting the church bureaucracy, pacifying his debtors, but he kept working.
The rescue of the boys in Thailand is a reminder of what we human beings can do when “the better angels of our natures” are appealed to. We know that in our public life it is mostly the opposite. We are being worn down and made to feel impotent because we lack shepherds to summon us to our deeper possibilities. We are bombarded by calls to pride, arrogance, autonomy, and greed. When, all of a sudden an appeal to our deepest humanity breaks through, we readily respond and in our care and devotion discover what is truly possible for us. The saving of these boys and their coach is, at least in American media, continually being referred to as a miracle. The true miracle, however, is that for a moment we human beings have seen, in those who have responded so courageously and selflessly, that of which we are truly capable. Each moment is, in reality, such a call. May we today do what we can in response to the calls that we hear.
As long as I act freely I am good and do nothing but good, but as soon as I feel the yoke of necessity or human society I become rebellious, or rather recalcitrant, and then I am of no account. When I ought to do the opposite of what I want, nothing will make me do it, but neither do I do what I want, because I am too weak. I abstain from acting, because my weakness is all in the domain of action, my strength is all negative, and my sins are all sins of omission, rarely sins of commission. I have never believed that man’s freedom consists in doing what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do, and this is the freedom I have always sought after and often achieved, the freedom by virtue of which I have most scandalized my contemporaries. For they, being active, busy, ambitious, detesting freedom in others and not desiring it for themselves, as long as they can sometimes have their way, or rather prevent others from having theirs, they force themselves all their lives to do what they do not want to do and are willing to endure any servitude in order to command. They were wrong then, not in expelling me as a useless member of society, but in ostracizing me as dangerous, for I confess that I have done very little good, but never in my life have I harbored evil intentions, and I doubt if there is any man living who has done less actual evil than I.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Peter France, pp. 103-4