Today’s scriptures focus on the shepherds of the people, those deputed by God to provide leadership. In the Gospel reading we have reference to the Apostles, but it’s clear from the Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah, that this is not understood solely in terms of religious leadership: the concern is for all leadership, temporal and spiritual. This reflects the Judeo-Christian conviction that all leadership is ordained by God, and so ought to be guided by God’s precepts, the moral law, the wisdom of Christ, the disciplines of the community of the faithful, which in our day is the Church.
All leaders have as their primary task the bringing of the people to God. Bringing them to God in the deepening of the holiness of their lives, in the deepening of their relationship with God, and then having this rootedness in righteousness be the source of all action. How that happens in the realm of political leadership is in how that leadership maintains the safety and well-being of people, and more importantly, their freedom so as to pursue the happiness one will find in God.
A sinful, self-indulgent, decadent and morally decrepit people will not make good decisions individually or collectively. They will not choose well the policies that further promote righteousness, justice, charity, and so on, even as they believe that these will be the consequences of their choices, will be the result of the leadership they endorse. In the end, not even their own well-being will be preserved as they no longer can understand the logical consequences of either their actions or those of their leaders, because they no longer know good from evil, truth from lies.
One can readily see how initial bad decisions that lead us astray will only compound as we in our corruption begin to grown in selfishness, self-concern, and become preoccupied more with our appearance as good and righteous, even as the substance of our lives grows rotten.
However, occasionally, someone can cut through our self-delusion, our self-righteousness, our self-justification to recall us to true righteousness, and our need for genuine justification in the eyes of God. Of course, Jesus was one; but so too were the Apostles, and before them, the prophets.
You will note in the Gospel we just heard the following verses: “The Apostles returned from their mission… now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd.”
So, what is happening is that the Apostles by their faithful execution of their Lord’s instructions, become recognizable to the people as Jesus’ representatives. Insofar as they follow these twelve men, the result is not that the become followers of Peter or John or James, but that they are led actually to Christ. In fact, there comes a point in this brief story where most people figure out where the Apostles are headed, and so arrive ahead of them, making a great crowd on the shore who greet Jesus.
That is, or at least ought to be, the prayed for goal of every pastor, every deacon, priest, bishop and pope: that by example, by preaching and teaching, they come to be known as someone sent by Jesus, and then as people see where they are headed in their personal walk of faith, they surpass them, that at some point in your journeys of faith, you then know where Christ is, and go running to him.
It’s an exciting thing to see. And it still involves me as a priest, as one who can then act as less a guide, and more as a coach or trainer or more simply as that person of support, like the volunteers who give out water to marathon runners who know where the finish line is.
It is always my job to help others as pastor in this movement toward God, whether it is in rescue of the lost, instruction of the flock, encouragement in continuing this often long and hard journey.
The great temptation for me and other pastors is to stray from this work; to seek “relevance” in the eyes of the world, to attach myself to causes, to involve myself in politics.
You ought not be surprised that I am approached to endorse political causes. Now, those who ask don’t understand themselves to be doing this. For them, they are asking me to simply declare a great truth, to champion it as a matter of justice, to signal to the congregations under my charge that allegiance to this or that cause is now an indicator of faith, a sign of one’s personal righteousness and favour in God’s eyes. For those who ask this of me, there is no complexity in what is being promoted. Yet, as someone trained in theology and philosophy (and I have no illusions of myself as a latter-day Augustine or Aquinas!) I can often see this as not so straightforward, that it is something capable of genuine debate among sincere and good people; and so, I refuse to run the item in the bulletin, on the website, send out the email.
I’ll give you a concrete and recent example. The local protestant churches sent me an email asking me if I would run an item in our bulletin and elsewhere on the issue of expanding the city’s boundaries that would involve rezoning of agricultural land.
I declined. Why?
Well, for one, the item was a piece written and being distributed by the Stop the Sprawl group here. So, the piece was biased to one side of the question. And that’s a problem.
Without taking sides, but drawing on my training in logic, I can take the other side of this question and make a good argument in favour of boundary expansion:
It would provide more land for housing that would increase the supply which might help lower the astronomical housing prices we’re seeing today.
That is a matter of social justice itself; and to choke the supply of land favours those who already own their homes, increasing their value, their wealth at the expense of shutting young families out of the market and keeping them in rental properties for good. Is that fair? Is that justice?
Now I have said this as simply an example. I am not making a public declaration on this question one way or the other. I am simply illustrating my point.
If I use the resources of this parish to promote one side of this question, what am I turning this parish into? Is this then a church for Catholics who oppose urban sprawl? If you’re someone who disagrees, you’re really not welcome?
We’re not here to adjudicate this question, or any other number of policy issues. We’re here to form people so that with well-formed conscience they can be in the world, and contribute to this discussion and decision-making that is willing to set aside prejudice, examine a particular situation and figure out what the right and good thing is to do.
I think it a good thing if this parish’s members discuss this and other things of public importance, and that they do so from a faith perspective.
We’re here to deepen our relationship with God through Christ, and learn from that what good and evil are, but more importantly, how readily we can be deceived both by ourselves and others in our discernment of them.
This is a place of spiritual formation. Insofar as I discuss the world of politics it is in how it has forgotten its proper role in our lives; how political leaders liken themselves to moral philosophers or presume to act as bishops and priests in declaring what the Church ought and ought not to say and do.
Our head of state, the Queen, in her coronation undertook to preserve, protect and uphold the law of God, and to be guided by the wisdom of the Gospel. That was just 70 years ago. I know that will seem a long time for those under 40, but that’s scarcely an instant within the long story of humanity, both in its history and in its myth.
Where we are today is far from this understanding of leadership.
I mention the Queen’s coronation oath, the whole of the ceremony that surrounded her receiving of royal authority because that royal authority is the basis of the Canadian state’s legal authority. Yet as I look at the state of those lands that still look upon Elizabeth Windsor as their monarch, I’m disturbed by the moral decay that has translated into political, social and economic chaos. That chaos has dire consequences for us all, but especially for those who come after us.
I have a soft spot for Her Majesty, and I rather think she would have been better off abdicating some decades ago, and allowing us all to be republics, and so to strip away what little is left of the thin veneer of divine sanction conferred upon our political system.
It might have made the job of the Church clearer to the hierarchy, to the clergy, to us all. We’re here to help ourselves and, well, everyone know Jesus. We are to bring people to him, so that they might know him.
In knowing him, then, when confronted by the vexing questions of politics, but also family life, work life, and so on, when we fall back upon that basic and almost cliché question: what would Jesus do? We might just stand a chance of answering it.