Sheep do not have much in the way of defense mechanisms. They can run, they can climb steep hills, and they can gather in a circle (so it is harder for a predator to single them out). That is it. Domesticated sheep require care and attention in order to survive. Unattended they are prone to infections, parasites and predators. They need to be shepherded or they will die.
As Matthew 9 closes, Jesus looks on the crowds that are following him and is reminded of sheep without a shepherd. The were described as “harassed and helpless.” Other translations say the people were “confused and helpless” or “distressed and dispirited.”
When sheep are fearful, threatened or distressed their instinctive response is to gather together for safety. I wonder if it was the sight of the gathered crowds that triggered the analogy in Jesus’ mind. The people who were following Jesus, who formed the mob in His wake, were the common folk. Under worldly oppression from the Roman Empire and its soldiers and spiritually oppressed by religious leaders who told them they were unworthy of God’s blessing because they did not keep the law as they should, they gathered together and followed after Jesus.
They were a needy bunch. A review of the gospel accounts reveals that they were constantly pursuing Jesus, seeking healing, teaching and miracles. So desperate were they that on more than one occasion they did not remember to take food with them when they followed Jesus, forcing Jesus to miraculously feed over 4000 people.
Demanding, needy people can be annoying. It is easy to look at them and think they should be smarter and better. To conclude that they should plan better, prepare better, and take better care of themselves. I have often felt this way when confronted with particularly needy people, sometimes asking myself, “Why are people so ________” (Insert derogatory term here)
Jesus did not do this. When he looked at the needy people He saw them differently than I do. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd, as people in need of guidance, care and direction, people burdened and threatened by the world, gathered together in search of safety, in search of a savior.
Because Jesus saw them in this way his response was different than the one that has characterized me too often. I get annoyed, Jesus was moved with compassion. Deep inside his being, the plight of the people moved Him. It moved Him in a way that led Him to turn to his disciples with a specific request. He asked them to pray that God would raise up workers, workers who would reach out to the crowd and invite them into the kingdom of God. Their downtrodden state, instead of being a cause for dismissal was evidence that God was working in their lives and preparing their hearts to hear the Good News. Jesus saw this.
Jesus, who taught that it was the Poor in Spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs, reminded his disciples that these people, poor and distressed and helpless, had been brought to a place where they could receive that kingdom.
This discussion from my men’s study led me to a simple and clear conclusion. I need to see the world like Jesus does.