Once Upon a Hillside

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


In last Sunday’s gospel, we read that Jesus sent 12 of his closest disciples out two by two to preach repentance, to drive out demons, and to cure the sick in those places he eventually would visit. It would be their first taste of pastoral ministry, ministry in Jesus’ name and with his authority. And when the twelve returned, they had wonderful stories to tell of how crowds came in droves to hear them speak, how they listened attentively as they shared Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God using images he himself used, of seed and sower, grapevines and vine growers, sheep and shepherd, how evil spirits recognized them because they used Jesus’ name to cast them out, how they were cast out thrashing and screaming, their eyes rolling backward, strange and unfamiliar voices coming out of their mouths, their faces contorting and their limbs bending in unnatural ways, and then a great calm when the ordeal was over, of how they restored to health those who were sick and broken as they invoked the name of Jesus with confidence and authority. Now if such wondrous things happened to you, you would be delirious with excitement too, feverish with adrenaline, forgetting to eat and getting very little sleep, but making sure to tell anyone about it who would listen.

And Jesus listened to them with quiet satisfaction probably saying very little so great and infectious was their joy. Not too long ago they were just inconsequential fishermen and tradesmen. Now they were powerful and confident partners with Jesus in preaching repentance, driving out evil spirits, and curing the sick. And Jesus knew he would send them out yet again because he was building the foundations of what would be his enduring legacy, a holy people after the merciful Father’s heart with leaders to take up his work of announcing good news and inviting all to reconciliation. There was a method to his madness. But all in good time. Right that moment he wanted them just to come away to a deserted place to rest a while. The work of preaching repentance and driving out demons and curing the sick would still be there after lunch and a nice siesta. And I can assure you the work is still there 2000+ years later. And it’s not letting up.

They went off in a boat by themselves presumably setting off from one shore to the other side of the lake. But people who had heard their message and had seen the healings and cures they performed were not yet looking to go home and return another day. They wanted to hear more now. They wanted to be healed of their afflictions now. And despite his earlier express plans to get away with the twelve and rest a while, Jesus had to concede that you shouldn’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. And when he saw the crowd gathered on the hillside, “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Jesus acted then with great compassion and set an example for his disciples to follow, thus setting a high bar for pastoral ministry that is sometimes out of the reach of many. The work will always be there. It will be exhausting but deeply rewarding. And when a hard-working disciple is spent and worn out, someone else will take his place.

It is extremely important in the work of pastoral ministry to get away every so often and rest a while. With any healthy ministry, time away is highly recommended for the purpose of renewal and recommitment. For as long as the work is still enjoyable and life-giving, it is important to revive and replenish the minister’s exhausted spirits and flagging enthusiasm. The work of pastoral ministry, which is the work of Jesus as shepherd of God’s people and to which Jesus invites his disciples to take up after him, is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is important work. It is necessary work. When it is undertaken with dedication and humility, it benefits the people of God and builds up the kingdom. When it is undertaken selfishly and for personal gain, it creates division and rivalry, driving God’s people away and hindering reconciliation. Jesus alone is our true Shepherd who nourishes God’s flock. His many surrogates through the centuries have picked up the work after him with mixed results. But by normal human standards, Jesus was not an overwhelming success himself. His opponents had him arrested and tried and sent him to a horrible death. It is no great comfort for those who take up his cause to know they will meet similar resistance. There will be people who will oppose their ministry and be highly critical of it and denounce it and work to undermine it. But like Jesus they will soldier on. They know their Shepherd who calls them by name.

And 2000+ years later Jesus is still sending out disciples to continue his work of preaching repentance, driving out demons, and curing the sick. Each of them will hear the invitation differently. Some will respond out of genuine commitment and humility while others will be motivated by honors and personal gain. Some will draw people to Jesus and seek to advance the kingdom of God while others will draw people to themselves and seek only to advance their own earthly kingdom. The test of the true shepherd sent by Jesus is whether or not they are doing his work of compassion and reconciliation, that in their preaching of repentance and their casting out demons and their healing of the broken they are drawing God’s people to God’s own heart. Lesser shepherds will come and go. But we need not fear. Jesus the true Shepherd will always provide for his flock shepherds after his own heart and worthy of his mission.

It is tempting to think that when Jesus was moved with pity for the crowd and decided to teach them after suggesting to his disciples that they get away and rest a while, that they were totally on board with his executive decision. Knowing some of them, I am inclined to think not likely. But none of their objections were recorded in the story. So we think they just went along. But there were still twelve of them. Maybe Jesus didn’t do all the teaching himself. Maybe he gave a keynote address and then sent them into small groups for further discussion. The point is the work got done because Jesus had help. And we can be sure they found another time to catch a break and share some theological reflection on their pastoral ministry. It would be a recurring issue how they replenished their energies and renewed their commitment to the work of pastoral ministry. And it is a recurring issue 2000+ years later.

The work of preaching repentance, of casting out evil spirits, and of curing the sick will always be there, and there will be plenty of it. But no one wants the shepherds who take up Jesus’ ministry to burn out. People are mistaken who think discipleship is just about listening to Jesus’ message and watching him do wonderful deeds. Instead genuine discipleship is about proclaiming good news and doing the work Jesus did. We need your help if the work will get done. And if you’re not going to help, you could at least stop being too demanding. Pastors and their staff who work hard could always use a break.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021