And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” ESV
The first lesson of this passage comes from its expansiveness. Jesus went throughout “all” the cities and villages. He healed “every” disease and “every” affliction. What he saw was not just one needy person here and there; what he saw was “the crowds.” This passage expands our vision. It draws our eyes outward to see the scope of the needs in the world. It challenges us to look up and out.
One of the challenges of this time of quarantine is the tendency toward myopia. We have had to live small and stay in. For some, this has benefited family relationships, provided rest from franticness, and restored their soul. But for some, it has also produced short-sightedness. We haven’t been out seeing needs and being drawn into bigger problems beyond our homes. For sure, we’ve witnessed much in the news. But that’s not the same. The first call to action from this passage is to expand our view and see the needs of others.
Engaging our Hearts
The second lesson of this passage engages our hearts in those needs. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion. This English word here is too mild. Jesus had a gut-wrenching reaction. He was in agony over their condition. RT France notes that this expression, “had compassion” is only used in the NT regarding Jesus (Matthew, TNTC, IVPress, 1985, p 175). Is that because in his sinlessness, Jesus had no impediments to pure compassion?
The combined tragedies of COVID-19 and the murders of black men, with the unrest that has followed, has highlighted the pain of a particular “crowd.” The black community has suffered disproportionately from the virus. And the black community has suffered disproportionately from injustice. Judging from God’s hatred of unequal weights and measures, his hatred of favoritism, his hatred of overlooking the needs of the poor, and judging from his condemnation of the evil shepherds (Ezekiel 34), Jesus would be moved to agonizing compassion. The call to action here for us is to ask God to grow in us Spirit-sourced compassion, like Jesus. To follow Jesus is to see what he sees, and to watch him respond with pain to the suffering of the crowds. If not, then we are not following Jesus.
Working for the Good
Third, we have a lesson to learn from the harassed and helpless. In context, this is referring to spiritually lost Israelites. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the spiritual leaders of Israel who were not feeding God’s sheep, but rather “eating” them. It’s worth quoting this passage in full:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.” Ezekiel 34:1-10 ESV
The language of Matthew 9:36 captures this vivid, excoriating passage from Ezekiel. “Harassed” literally means “flayed,” as in stripped of their skin. And “helpless” means not just helpless but flung aside. Flayed and flung. Trashed and tossed. And because they have been treated so badly, they are to the point of being unable to get up and help themselves out of their situation.
Jesus, in his divine omniscience, knew full well that these harassed and helpless sheep were also sinners. He knew they were born in sin, and sinned against others. By referring to them as harassed and helpless, we are not being taught to label others as only ever victims. This passage is not a systematic theological statement on salvation doctrine. Therefore, we can’t dismiss this call to compassion for the harassed and helpless (whatever harassed and helpless crowd you’re thinking of at the moment) by saying, “Well, they got themselves into this mess with their own choices.” The point, rather, is that God establishes some to be leaders—shepherds—and they are to do their work for the good of those whom they lead. When they don’t, they ravage and cast aside the sheep.
And this is the good news of the Kingdom that Jesus is going about preaching and teaching: that a new King is here, who will shepherd his people with compassion and justice. The sheep will no longer be harassed and helpless. They will be led to green pastures and still waters. They will eat at a table the Shepherd-King spreads out for them.
This Shepherd-King in fact—and here’s the most amazing news of all—will not kill the sheep, he will die for the sheep so that they will live forever! The harassed and helpless will be loved in ways previously unimagined! They will be healed and clothed with righteousness, not flayed. They will be brought near to Christ, not cast away.
In context, the harassed and helpless are the lost sheep of Israel. But as the New Testament develops we come to see that the harassed and helpless are all who are spiritually lost apart from Christ. The Gentiles are harassed and helpless. The world is lost without a Shepherd to guide them…and to die for them.
And so the third action point is to not just expand our vision, and not just have compassion like Jesus, but to see that we, and those around us, are harassed and helpless and in need of the sacrificing Shepherd-King. We are all flayed and flung aside by sin, and we need Jesus to save us.
Finally, the fourth lesson of this passage is that Jesus enlists more shepherds—small “s”—to compassionately care for the massive needs of the crowds. And so he tells the disciples (who are most likely a large group of general followers of Jesus, not the Twelve) to pray for more shepherds. Don’t let the transition of metaphors from shepherd to harvest trick you. Laborers for the harvest is the same as shepherds for the flock.
And this brings us to the mission of church planting. The spiritually lost need to be shepherded toward the Shepherd. They need to hear the good news of the Kingdom and led to Christ and his church.
At NEU Church Planting, our hearts are drawn particularly to those who are harassed and helpless in the inner city. Those in communities where being trashed and tossed is a normal part of life in a particularly tangible way. We sense, in some small and inadequate ways, the compassion of Christ for these “crowds” in particular. That’s not because we are any less harassed and helpless apart from Christ. Rather it’s because the crowd of the inner city is being overlooked. And often, that’s because the ways they are being trashed and tossed make living and planting churches there uncomfortable.
Which is why we need to pray—the fourth action point. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will raise up laborers for this harvest. That he will provide shepherds after his own heart who will plant churches, showing others there is a Shepherd who loves them, who has good news, and who has commissioned shepherds to lead churches among them for their good—and His glory.