Jeremiah was a prophet of the Kingdom of Judah, prior to, during and after the conquest by the Babylonians. He was, so to speak, a "gadfly on the wall" as great tragic events swirled around him, events that were inevitable as the people, especially their leaders, abandoned faith in the Living God. Instead, they sought refuge in all the wrong places. Their leaders even fled to Egypt to escape the Chaldeans (whose capital was Babylon)… Yet, their alliance with Egypt proved fruitless.
Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.
The army of Pharaoh had come out of Egypt; and when the Chalde'ans who were besieging Jerusalem heard news of them, they withdrew from Jerusalem.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet:
"Thus says the LORD, God of Israel: Thus shall you say to the king of Judah who sent you to me to inquire of me, `Behold, Pharaoh's army which came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land.
And the Chalde'ans shall come back and fight against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire.
[Jeremiah 37:4-8, RSV]
In today's first reading, God rebukes these blind guides [cf. Matthew 23:16, and surrounding]…
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. [Jeremiah 23:1-2, NAB-RE]
When the people can see that their leaders follow vain pursuits, seeking their own interests over those of the people, they divide into camps out of fear for their lives and their livelihood. In the biblical phrase, they "return to their own tents." Moreover, the incursions of the Babylonians (i.e., Chaldeans) made life a living hell, so the people fled. From God's perspective, the shepherds have scattered the sheep. If they had led the people to heed his word, God would have fought on their behalf.
Seeing that his people have no faithful shepherds, God vows to lead them, himself.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
In this passage, the Lord promises to reunite the scattered children of Jacob/Israel, with implications for the end times. Although, in spite of the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (between 740 and 722 BC), there was a remnant in Galilee and Samaria. That remnant survived to the time of Christ, though only Galilee retained faithful people, some of whom became disciples of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is believed that much, if not most, of the people either perished in the fighting or were scattered to the nations. God's promise to reunite them is a promise of future blessing.
In today's Gospel [Mark 6:30-34] begins with a debriefing of the Apostles whom Jesus had sent out to preach the good news of the kingdom. Then Jesus suggests they go off to a deserted place to rest and to pray. They are followed by a crowd who are eager to hear the Lord preach and to benefit from his healing miracles. Taking pity of them, Jesus alters his plans.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things.
Thus, Jesus fulfills, in some measure, the prophesy of Jeremiah at the end of this day's first reading.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David;
as king he shall reign and govern wisely,
he shall do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah shall be saved,
Israel shall dwell in security.
This is the name they give him:
"The LORD our justice."
Of course, we know that the remnant of Israel (particularly in Judea, the historic kingdom of Judah in Jesus' time) failed to recognize (as Jesus put it in Luke 19:44) the time of their visitation. They rejected Jesus' teaching, had him put to death, rebelled (in the Zealot movement) against Roman authority, and suffered the total destruction of their capital city, Jerusalem, in 70 AD. (See, also, Matthew 13:10-17, Thursday's Gospel reading.
There are many parallels to our own times. In ancient Israel and Judah, there were many guild prophets who were directly employed by their kings. In many cases they were corrupt, had no special connection to God, and told the king whatever they figured he wanted to hear. In other cases, they were mere bystanders as prophets chosen by God superseded them. In our day, these 'prophets" take many forms, such as scientists, accountants, lawyers, pollsters, and political consultants. Many of these have important credentials, but often choose to set their integrity aside to obtain gainful employment.
In the history of Israel, its kings (both in Judah and in the divided northern kingdom of Israel) abused their authority to serve their many lusts. Those who got in the way were, in a variety of ways, disenfranchised or put to death.
In our culture, and aided and abetted by government policies, those who maintain their integrity, especially those whose consciences are well formed by their religious tradition, are marginalized. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution proclaims up front "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This has been reinterpreted to declare the "separation of church and state", an interpretation that ultimately marginalizes "the free exercise thereof". Furthermore, those who would fight to maintain their freedom of worship and exercise of principles of faith, hope and charity, must often take their case to the Supreme Court to challenge the government to prove that its interests could not be satisfied by a less intrusive approach.
In our consumer culture, we often put a life of ease above accepting the challenge of begetting and raising children, and should it be discovered that a child on the way is inconvenient to one's life plans (especially if genetic abnormalities are discovered) a decision is made to abort. That decision is, in effect, promoted by close to a billion in federal, state and local subsidies to the abortion industry.
Even the Church, itself, has been infected by this turn to materialism. Here in the U.S., in particular, there have been compromises with secular authorities that sacrifice moral truth for the sake of maintaining ongoing charitable outreach, especially in hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, schools and colleges, but also in community development. "Getting in bed with government" has undoubtedly contributed to the ongoing clergy sex scandal out of a need to "keep up appearances," with the latest scandals reaching to the top of the hierarchy.
In ancient Israel, kings were seduced by the empty promises of false gods, and they often led their people to follow that ugly path. How ugly? Consider Jeremiah 7:30-34…
The people of Judah have done what is evil in my eyes—oracle of the LORD. They have set up their detestable things in the house which bears my name, thereby defiling it. In the Valley of Ben-hinnom[known in Jesus' time as "Gehenna"] they go on building the high places of Topheth to sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire, something I never commanded or considered. Be assured! Days are coming—oracle of the LORD—when they will no longer say “Topheth” or “Valley of Ben-hinnom” but “Valley of Slaughter.” For want of space, Topheth [see Tophet] will become burial ground. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the sky and beasts of the earth, which no one will drive away. I will silence the cry of joy, the cry of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land will be turned to rubble.
In our own time, secular humanism has taken the place of religion, or become a substitute religion. This religion, too, has demanded human sacrifice, and justified it, calling it eugenics, or "a woman's right to choose," or "a one-child policy," or "death with dignity."
Armageddon, in this new religion, is over-population, man-made global warming, a retreat from globalism, an unmanageable voting public, shrinking government, a re-balanced separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), genuine federalism, a balanced budget, religious awakening movements, a return to a natural law ethic (especially the idea that human rights are God's design, not ours) and jurisprudence, tempered by constitutional rule.
In spite of all this corruption, God is always ready to forgive and forget (in a manner of speaking) if we would only seek to return to him. We see this thirst in this day's Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 6.