Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 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 ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Matthew 9:35-38 (NRSV)
Jesus has been going around to the synagogues teaching and healing, and at some point, the magnitude of his task hits him in a new way. He sees the poor, broken, and oppressed and is moved to pity because they were “harrassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
There are several passages in the Old Testament that compare Israel’s leaders to shepherds, and there’s more than one that describes the piteous state of Israel at various times as sheep without a shepherd. But probably the allusion that fits Matthew’s situation most directly is Ezekiel 34. The entire chapter is dedicated to this metaphor. Here’s how it begins:
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you 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 fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 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 no one to search or seek for them.
Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NRSV)
The passage goes on to describe how YHWH will seek out and gather His lost sheep, and he will judge the sheep that have gotten fat and ravaged the flock. He will save His sheep and deliver them from the rough places, using some images that are very resonant with Psalm 23. And what will God do when He saves His sheep?
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV)
It is probably not a coincidence that, just a few verses ago, the blind men that Jesus heals proclaim him the “Son of David.”
Ezekiel 34 finishes with an idyllic picture where God ensures that no more harm will come to his flock, nor will they suffer at the hands of the nations, and the world will know that Israel is His people.
Jesus sees that this is the current state of affairs with Israel, and he is moved to compassion for them. He wants to save them, and he laments that there are so many that need saving but so few people who will work to save them. He then commissions his disciples to spread out and, only to Israel, proclaim the good news that the kingdom has come, healing the sick and casting out demons as Jesus has been doing. They join him as co-laborers in rescuing the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The expansion of Jesus’ efforts to save Israel will not end here. More disciples will be sent, and after his ascension, the Spirit is poured out, and Judean fishermen discover that they, too, are prophets and healers and exorcists, bringing the kingdom of God, warning of the impending judgement, and calling the lost sheep to repentance and salvation.
This is what Jesus prayed for and what he asks those who have joined him to pray for. The time for saving his people is now, but the amount of work is vast. Jesus is just one person. As busy as he is, he can only heal so many people, cast out so many demons, teach so many people, warn so many people. His prayers are answered by the apostles and, a little later, more disciples. It is through the participation of these laborers that God sets up one shepherd over them.
The image of harvest is also one that Jesus will use to talk about his mission. In Jesus’ parables, Israel is a vineyard that had been given to certain tenants to watch over, but these tenants were irresponsible and did not produce fruit for the landlord. The landlord sends representatives to these tenants and, finally, his own son. All are rejected by the tenants, and the son himself is killed. The landlord puts the tenants to death and gives the vineyard over to others, and the stone that was rejected becomes the cornerstone.
Here, we see Jesus as the good shepherd. We see him as the cornerstone. We see him as the faithful caretaker replacing Israel’s former caretakers with caretakers of his own choosing, and the caretakers will not take this lying down.
As with many things in the New Testament, these events are long past. The wicked shepherds have been judged. The evil tenants have been driven out. The sheep have been placed under their one shepherd. Those things that were future events to Ezekiel and current or near-future events for Jesus are past events to us.
Yet the ravages that plagued Israel still plague the creation in some form or another. If we look beyond the immediate New Testament story of Israel and the nations as they knew them, we see a creation full of people suffering who have no one looking out for them. God has demonstrated in history that He will keep His promises not simply through the heroic efforts of Jesus, but by the Spirit-empowered ministry of Joseph Israelite and Jerry Gentile. This shepherd is still our shepherd. This king is still our Lord. His God is still our God. His Spirit is still our Spirit.
And what are we doing with our gifts and our privileged state of affairs? What are we to be about if not blessing the nations? What are we supposed to be if not inhabitants of the New Creation in the midst of this one? And at the boundaries – at the points of intersection of this world and the next – what else should be happening if not forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and peace?
Care, in other words.
- Living a life in service to God means, at least in part, being a servant to all. In what capacity can you serve your corner of the world?