Every so often, I would make allusions to the words “Baptismal Covenant” and I do that mainly because, and unless we get intentional in bringing that to the forefront of our Faith Journey, there’s a good chance that they’ll remain in the sideline, meaning, we’ll eventually end up forgetting about it. It’s a simple case of the law of disuse.
For one thing, they’re rarely brought out in the language of our weekly Eucharistic celebrations except for the first half of that said covenant; which is basically the creedal affirmation of our faith and also, when there are actual baptisms taking place. It’s only then that we get to go through the exercise of responding to some serious questions.
They are questions that point to our mission as children of God; our mission to present ourselves, before the world and through the totality of our being, as God’s vehicle in furthering God’s intent of leading others toward the path that’ll ultimately unite all of creation.
It also reminds us of the challenge we have agreed to engage in, namely, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, meaning everyone, not only those who think and speak and dress like we do but everyone, including those who differ from us in matters of culture, of political persuasions and status in the community. Our Baptismal Covenant continues to remind us of that mission.
It also reminds us of the commitment which we pledged to do, and that is to strive for justice and peace, again not just justice and peace among our kind, but among all people, and to willfully respect the dignity of every human being.
These are some of the specific reasons why we need to be constantly made cognizant of our Baptismal Covenant and for us to “walk” it rather than just “talk” about it.
And it’s a tall order for us to follow. That, I don’t deny. I mean, yes, we want to follow Jesus and to have him central in our lives but the truth is that that “all persons” thing, that’s just so prone to be violated and that “strive for justice and peace” thing? Well, you know what I’m talking about.
We can always argue and defend our culpability in this regard by pointing to our flawed humanity as the culprit but that shouldn't be made as an excuse for our continued disobedience of such injunction. We need to smarten up or else.
Well, put that aside for now and listen to this minor confession. With 10 and 12 years gap between me and my two other siblings and being the youngest of us three, I didn’t have any idea how my parents were with them when it comes to discipline. But when I was growing up, I was more of an “obedient” son. And that, I think, was due to how my father molded me more than the scolding I would get from my mother. Between Mom and Dad, my father was the disciplinarian; a very serious gentleman and yet he had subtle ways of getting his message across.
I remember those occasions when he would entertain visitors and I happen to “hang around” just to be nosy, and Dad would give me a certain look and I knew exactly what he meant by it. And I'd get the picture. I’d leave and just do my own thing.
But then there were times when I kind of “failed” to get the message or “pretended” I didn’t see it, and he’d give me that other look which I came to learn the hard way as “Watch out! Smarten up or else.”
Through the years I kept that in me and I learned that obedience does not necessarily stem out of fear but rather out of respect for someone with authority.
It is with these two images of responsibility and discipline that I invite you to revisit our Old Testament Reading for today.
Here once more are the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
“Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord. I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:1-4 CEB)
I'd like to imagine Yahweh casting down that “look” on those who had been entrusted leadership and sending them the message, “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.
For us to better appreciate this imagery, we need to go back to the early beginnings of leadership in Israel. Recall that for a time, Israel as a people did not have any formal form of leadership. There were the great Pillars of Faith, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and Joseph, but for the most part, the tribes of Israel were kind of loosely federated.
Their next semi-formal leaders were the Judges who did an outstanding job by themselves but as it turned out, Israel wanted to be just like the others in their area. They wanted to be governed by kings.
And Yahweh would have discouraged them if it were entirely up to Him but we learn that Israel got what they wanted; thereby entering into an entirely different level of relationships with their new leaders.
And that’s when the issue of responsibility for God’s people began to get out of hand. There followed a long series of what could be termed as “lousy kings”. Yes, Saul started to be the leader they ever wanted but he later devolved into self-absorption and got obsessed with getting rid of David.
With David, yes, we was the greatest king that Israel had and yet, he, too, was flawed. He was an adulterer having seduced Bathsheba. He even arranged for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband.
Even Solomon who allegedly was another great king having built the magnificent Temple, he, too, was flawed and so did the long line of kings of what would be known as the divided kingdom; the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Their times could be mildly described as less than savory.
The bottom line is that those leaders, the kings of Israel, did not do well in carrying out the responsibility afforded them by their seat of power and authority. They did the opposite. Utilizing the imagery that was common then, the imagery of shepherds and shepherding became helpful in bringing out this sad reality. The kings of Israel were just like shepherds who had been given the responsibility of taking care of their flock, of protecting them from any harm induced from the outside but who, instead, reneged on their responsibility as leaders of the flock.
And so, Yahweh, having chosen the prophet Jeremiah to speak his Godly Truth, has come back to them and said: “Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” or as the New Revised Standard Version would have it “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”
It was the kings, the “shepherds” of Israel, who were being held accountable for the failure in their leadership. Rather than attending to their sheep’s needs, they were instrumental in their dispersion to places unsafe for their sheep. Rather than gathering them into safety, they have caused them to scatter in harm’s way.
“Watch out. Smarten up or else.” Strong words for Jeremiah’s time and, yet, so contemporary!
This imagery of shepherds abusing their power and failing in their responsibility has continued to be operative among those who had been given the seat of leadership in the religious world, including Christianity.
There had been many occasions when this Scriptural passage has been thrown at clergy who have failed in this regard. All of us know of cases that spotlight a few in the ordained ministry who have failed. In recent years, the whole world has become aware of the scandal of clergy who abuse children, who steal from their congregations, who violate the trust given to them. Somehow the words “Watch out, smarten up or else” have become so apropos.
So where does this take us? Are these words echoing in your hearts as well? Where’s the good news in this?
In the world of Crime and Punishment, the guilty ones are usually handed out with punitive measures commensurate to their crime. In the language of some church traditions, it’s time for “fire and brimstones” to fall down. But notice that Jeremiah does not say that of Yahweh. We know that the God pictured in the Old Testament is often that of an obdurate Judge who punishes the offender. But in this particular passage from Jeremiah, God does not do that. Instead Yahweh says that he will raise up “shepherds” over them who will “shepherd” them.
By virtue of our baptism and as affirmed by us or our Sponsors or Godparents in the Baptismal Covenant, we have become those shepherds. We are the shepherds, both lay and ordained, who will seek to gather those sheep that had been scattered and bring them back under the guidance of our Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus.
In your own little worlds and spheres of influence, it is there where you are called to continue to do the shepherding for those who are out there, just waiting for you. And when you begin to do that, you shall also have heeded the caution: “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.