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16th Sunday in ordinary time: Keeping hope alive

Today’s readings: Jeremiah 23, 1-6; Ephesians 2, 13-18; Mark 6, 30-34.

For quite some time now in the West it has been widely assumed that the Western model of liberal democracy and free trade is the way the world should be governed. Francis Fukuyama had affirmed this in his acclaimed The End of History and the Last Man. However, as historian Michael Burleigh has more recently written in his The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. A History of Now, this theory of continued progress under the gaze of the Western powers has now been severely put to question.

As America turns inwards and Europe is beset by populist nationalisms, we seem to be less and less secure and sure of ourselves about the times in which we live in. Yet, at a time when everyone is opinionated, experts and non-experts alike, we cannot afford to be simplistic in the way we judge the times we live in. We really need wisdom and discernment to understand profoundly how times are changing, how we are changing along with them and how all this is impacting on humanity at large.

Jeremiah’s indictment of the shepherd-kings of his time, accusing them that through their neglect as leaders they caused the exile of the people in their care, sounds so contemporary for us. It is so distant in time yet so near and truthful when we examine the sensations many of us carry inside. In the history of Israel, Jeremiah is a case in point of someone speaking truth to power, believing heartily in what he is saying and fighting boldly to make it heard.

His word in the first reading addressed to Judah’s exiles is about the beginning of a new world that God can bring about but which at the time was held as too far-fetched and utopian. Such turning points in history which Jeremiah was prophesying for his people many a time are thought to be impossible.

Even today, things as they are, it is easy to just let go and give in to indifference. Even as believers, we ourselves lack the courage and boldness to keep hope alive and just go along with the processes of time, politics and the economy. As at the time of Jeremiah, we fail to believe that the vicious circles of violence, corruption, abuse of power, and evil in its diverse forms can be broken. That, of course, makes of our times the worst of times.

It has also become a mantra today that the world now lacks people in positions of power who can really lead and inspire trust, who can instill courage and boldness and who are credible. But giving in to such mantras would take us nowhere. In today’s gospel, a text that is outstanding in Mark, we read how Jesus, seeing the crowds thirsty for true and inspiring leadership, “took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”.

This text in today’s context speaks loud and clear both to the world and the Church in particular. On the level of society, even if we examine the fabric of Maltese society now, we need inspiring leaders; not necessarily leaders who occupy the positions of power, but leaders who are outstanding in the way they stand for what they believe in, people who speak truth to power.

In like manner, this applies also to our Church circles. Unfortunately, the words of Jeremiah can sound so true in our faith communities today: “You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them.” Standing by our strategies and priorities, even the Church, in the leadership it is called to offer, seems to be confused and lost. The lack of vision makes of us a mediocre Church, lacking the joy and enthusiasm of which Pope Francis speaks so much. This makes it hard for the Church to connect with what so many are genuinely in search of, failing to respond to their real needs. This is how even today, as at the time of Jeremiah, we end up leading those in our care, into exile and dispersion rather than “back to their pastures”.

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