The famous pulpiteer George Buttrick in commenting on this passage asked the following rhetorical question: “How does a crowd affect us?” A crowd might evoke fear, excitement, disgust, weariness, or indifference. But I would suggest that rarely does a crowd evoke compassion. Yet in our passage Jesus looked out over the crowd and had compassion. As we have discovered elsewhere in this blog, the Hebrew background to the word for compassion is the womb of a mother. It’s the deep love and solidarity a mother feels for her children. Jesus taught that the primary characteristic of this God he called Abba was this mother/womb love.
So, Matthew writes that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Now those of us who live in urban and suburban America probably have some rather sentimental and naive notions about sheep. In a previous church I pastored, we had a family who raised sheep. My father-in-law had sheep. In case you don’t know, I’m here to tell you that when the Bible compares us to sheep, we are not being complimented. Sheep are notoriously helpless and stupid animals. They have no sense of direction. They would rather give up than struggle. They are easily terrified. At my father-in-law’s farm, I observed that a mere leaf blowing across a meadow could send them into a frenzy. They have been known to suffocate one another because they huddle so closely for security. Their wool is not lily white. In fact, they are dirty animals, and they smell! Put kindly, they are utterly dependent on something or someone other than themselves for protection and guidance. So, in spite of our images of cuddly lambs and “Little Bo Peep” nursery rhymes, the Bible is not flattering us by calling us sheep.
Today we might ask, “Who are the sheep without a shepherd in our society?” Who are those who are timid, helpless, easily frightened, easily led astray, lacking in sufficient resources to protect themselves? Perhaps our minds naturally turn to the children in our society: children without adult guidance; children of absent, under-attentive, or abusive parents; children in street gangs; children who herd together for security and identity in a threatening environment; children who are in danger from all kinds of predators.
But we must not stop there, for there are others in the crowd besides helpless children. There are people who are children in adult bodies–children who have never been loved, never been affirmed, never known joy. There are people so weary from their struggles, both inward and outward, that they are disoriented and ripe for use and abuse by others. And there are those with a flock mentality: what they believe, what they value, how they act, where they go, and what they do are all determined by the pressure of the crowd. They have no identity of their own and find their security in trying to be clones of the majority. And then there are those vast numbers who are never even allowed into the accepted crowd. Such “lost sheep” stand on the fringe of society: the poor, the hungry, the mentally, emotionally, and physically challenged, the unattractive, the different. They are eaten alive each day by wolves who are quick to take advantage of their vulnerability and pain.
Jesus looked out over such crowds and had compassion. When we allow the impact of these words to hit us, they take our breath away. What kind of man is this who dares to have compassion on crowds of people? What kind of God does he call Abba who embraces this creation from the inside out with womb-like compassion? Do we know~-really know, deep down in our guts and in our souls this Mother God who would keep the world in her womb and who would cradle crowds in her arms?
In our passage Jesus decides to put hands and feet, voice and heart, words and actions to this compassion. He calls his followers to go out into the crowds and to share with them the good news and power of God’s coming Kingdom. He gives them the power to become shepherds to the confused, frightened, weary sheep.
Does Jesus call his followers today to go forth into the crowds and to have compassion on this world? And is it possible that such compassion is what God is primarily looking for in those of us who have the gumption to call ourselves Christians and a part of the Body of Christ? We are not called to have compassion just on those within our midst. That itself can be hard enough, but that is light-years away from being disciples of Jesus. We are called to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, to hear the world through the ears of Jesus, and to love the world through the heart of Jesus. And can anyone in any church doubt that there are those in the crowds in close proximity who need to experience the Good News of God’s Kingdom as they are healed of their pain, liberated from their demons, loved in all their need, gifted with the title “child of God,” and raised from their graves, ruts, addictions, and despair? What we do in our churches need not be a routine much less a trivial matter. If we take seriously our calling from Jesus Christ, we might discover a mission that would bless us as much as our faithfulness could bless others. Instead of disoriented and clueless sheep, we might become dynamic agents of change, healing, and transformation.
“He looked out on the crowd and had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The Great Shepherd then turned to his disciples who in the past had been just like those in the crowds surrounding him. And in essence, Jesus turned these former sheep into under-shepherds with an astounding mission driven by deep, womb-like compassion. Sometimes it scares the hell out of me when I read the Bible. Because of fear and lack of trust, I am tempted to remain a smelly, dumb sheep instead becoming an under-shepherd with compassion for the helpless and harassed flocks about me. I can think of a hundred reasons why I am not worthy or capable of such a role. But I must take comfort and find courage in two truths. First of all, we know from Mark’s Gospel (6:7) that on this occasion, Jesus did not send out his disciples one by one to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. He sent them out by twos. Jesus never assumed that we could live a faithful and loving Kingdom life alone. We need at least part of the Body of Christ with us in order to be his disciple. And secondly, I am reminded that he also said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.” We usually associate this saying with the gathering of the church in worship or in matters of church discipline. Perhaps we could also apply this promise to those who go out in mission to heal the world with compassion. If we have each other and if we have Jesus by our side, we need not fear our unworthiness. And we need not feel failure, because love always or eventually wins. Apparently, Jesus has faith in us—which means that I have no excuse—and that still scares the hell out of me.