It is written in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 9, verses 36 to 38: “36 When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then He said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest.”
How does Christ look at the people who followed Him? How does that sight make Him feel? Are we just like those people or are we frightfully superior with the continuing advancement of civilization? Do we still need Christ the Good Shepherd in this day and age?
In the course of our Lord’s wandering life of teaching and healing, there had naturally gathered around Him a large number of persons who followed Him from place to place, and we have here cast into a symbol the impression produced upon Him by their outward condition. That is to say, He sees them lying there weary, and footsore, and travel-stained. They have flung themselves down by the wayside. There is no leader or guide, no Joshua or director to order their march; they are a worn-out, tired, unregulated mob, and the sight smites upon His eye, and it smites upon His heart. He says to Himself, if I may venture to put words into His lips, ‘There are a worse weariness, and a worse wandering, and a worse anarchy, and a worse disorder afflicting men than that poor mob of tired pedestrians shows.’ Matthew, who was always fond of showing the links and connections between the Old Testament and the New, casts our Lord’s impression of what He then saw into language borrowed from the prophecy of Ezekiel (ch. 34.), which tells of a flock that is scattered in a dark and cloudy day, that is broken, and torn, and driven away. I venture to see in the text three points: (1) Christ teaching us how He looked at men; (2) Christ teaching us how to feel at such a sight; and (3) Christ teaching us what to do with the feeling. ‘When He saw the multitude, He was moved with compassion, because they were harassed and helpless.’ ‘Then He said to His disciples, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest.’ And then there follows, ‘And when He had called to Him His twelve disciples, He gave them power against unclean spirits to cast them out.’
I. Here we have our Lord teaching us how He looked at men.
The description of the flock, ‘Because they were harassed and helpless’. From the word harassed, we have the image of the poor sheep that has lost its way, struggling through briars and thorns, getting out of them with its fleece all torn and hanging in strips dangling at its heels, or of it as lacerated by the beasts of the field to whom it is a prey. Then the other word, which our Bible translates ‘helpless,’ seems to mean more properly ‘lying down,’ and it gives the idea of the poor, wearied creature, after all its struggles and wanderings, utterly beaten and dejected, having lost its way, at its wits’ end and resourceless, flinging itself down there in despair, and panting its timid life out anywhere where it finds itself. So it comes to be a picture of the utter weariness and hopelessness of all men’s efforts apart from that Guide and Shepherd, who alone can lead them in the way. And then both of these miserable states, the laceration if you take the one explanation, the disintegration and casting apart if you take the other, the weariness and exhaustion, are traced to their source, they are ‘as sheep having no shepherd.’
First of all, notice how here, as always to Jesus Christ, the outward was nothing, except as a symbol and manifestation of the inward; how the thing that He saw in a man was not the external accidents of circumstance or position, for His true, clear gaze and His loving, wise heart went straight to the essence of the matter, and dealt with the man not according to what he might happen to be in the categories of earth, but to what he was in the categories of heaven. All the same to Him whether it was some poor harlot, or a rabbi; all the same to Him whether it was Pilate on the judgment-seat, or the penitent thief hanging at His side. These gauds and shows were nothing; sheer away He cut them all, and went down to the hidden heart of the man, and He allocated and ranged them according to that. Christian men and women, do we try to do the same thing, and to get rid of all these superficial veils and curtains with which we drape ourselves and attitudinise in the world, and to see men as Christ saw them, both in regard to our judgment of them, and in regard to our judgment of ourselves? The one question worth asking and worth answering is, ‘How am I affected towards Him?’ There are many temporary and local principles of arrangement and order among men; but they will all vanish some day, and there will be one regulating and arranging principle, and it is this: ‘Do I love God in Jesus Christ, or do I not?’
That old metaphor of a shepherd which comes out of the Old Testament is there sometimes used to indicate a prophet, and sometimes to indicate a king. I suppose we may put both of these uses together, as far as our present purposes are concerned. I dare say some people will think it is very old-fashioned, very narrow in these broad and liberal days; but what I would say is this, that unless Jesus Christ is both Guide and Teacher, we have neither guide nor teacher but are shepherdless without Him. There are plenty of rulers. There was no lack of other authority in the days of His flesh. There were crowds of rabbis, guides, and directors. The life of the nation was throttled by the authorities that had planted themselves upon its back, and yet Christ saw that there were none of those who were fit for the work, or afforded the adequate guidance. And so it is, now and always. There have been hosts of men who have sought to impose their authority upon an era. Where is there one that has swayed passion, that has ruled hearts, that has impressed his own image on the will, that has made obedience an honour, and absolute, abject devotion to his command a very patent of nobility?
And as for ‘teacher,’ whom are we to put up beside Him? Aaron dies upon Hor; Moses dies upon Pisgah; the teachers, the leaders, the guides, the under-shepherds, pass away one by one; and if this Christ be but a Man and a Teacher, He too will pass away. Shall I be thought very blind to the signs of the times if I say that I see no sign of His dominion being exhausted, of His influence being diminished, of His guidance being capable of being dispensed with?
‘I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered,’ says the old prophecy. Of course, for what is there to hold them together unless it be their guide and their director? For whilst there are many other bonds most true, most blessed, God-given, and mighty, such as that of the sacred unity of the family, and that of the nation and many others of which we need not speak, yet all these are constantly being disintegrated by the unresting waves of that gnawing sea of selfishness. All the other bonds of society, such as creeds, schools, nations, associations, leagues, families, denominations, are never permanent. The base is eaten out of them, because every man that belongs to them has in him that tyrannous, dominant self, which is ever seeking to assert its own supremacy. Here is Babel, with its half-finished tower, built on slime; and there is Pentecost, with its great Spirit; here is the confusion, there is the unifying; here the disintegration, there the power that draws them all together.
As a verse in the Book of Proverbs puts it, ‘The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city’ (Eccl 10:15). Putting aside the metaphor, the plain truth which it embodies is just this, that there is in all men’s souls a deep longing after peace and rest, after goodness and beauty and truth, and that all the strenuous efforts to satisfy these longings, either by social reforms or by individual culture and discipline, are pathetically vain and profitless, because there is none to guide them. The sheep go wandering in any direction, and with no goal; and wherever one has jumped, a dozen others will go after him, and so they are wearied out long before the day’s journey is ended, and they never reach the goal. The sheep are dejected, despairing, anarchic, disintegrated, lacerated, guideless, and shepherdless — away from Christ. So He thought them. God give us the grace to see as Christ saw, the condition of humanity and our own apart from Him.
II. Christ teaching us how to feel at such a sight.
‘He was moved with compassion on them when He saw the multitude’ — with the eye of a god, I was going to say, and the heart of a man. Pity belongs to the idea of divinity; compassion belongs to the idea of divinity incarnate; and the motion that passed across His heart is the motion that I would seek may pass, with its sweet and healing breath, across yours and mine. The right emotion for a Christian looking on the Christless crowds is pity, not aversion; pity, not anger; pity, not curiosity; pity, not indifference. Jesus Christ had no aversions. His white purity was a great deal nearer to the blackness of the woman that was a sinner, than was the leprous whiteness of the whited sepulchre of the self-righteous Pharisee. He had neither aversion, nor anger, nor indifference.
III. Christ teaching us what to do with the feeling.
Christ opened His mouth and spoke to them, and taught them many things; Christ said to His disciples, ‘pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest’; and Christ sent out His apostles to preach the Kingdom. These three things in their bearing upon us are — personal work, prayer, help to send forth Christ’s messengers. There is nothing like personal work for making a man understand and feel the miseries of his fellows. Christian men and women, it is our first business everywhere to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ, and no prayers and no subscriptions absolve us from that. If Christ sent the apostles, do we hold up the hands of the apostles’ successors, and so by God’s grace you and I may help on the coming of that blessed day when there shall be one flock and one Shepherd, and when ‘the Lamb at the center of the throne’ — for the Shepherd is Himself a lamb — ‘shall feed them and lead them, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’
Let us ask Christ to be our Shepherd with the song “Shepherd Me Oh God”: