Matthew 9:35 – 38
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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had 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 laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish in its literary structure, following the format of the teachings of the Torah, or the first five books of the OT. In Matthew, there are five sections, each one having Jesus introduce the theme. This first section [or book], began with Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount and closes with this bit about sheep and shepherd and harvest. The next section begins in Matthew chapter 10.
Jesus, in this passage, is teaching in the synagogues, telling people about the good news of God, and curing diseases and illnesses. But along the way, Jesus notices the people in the crowds who are harassed, helpless, pushed to the side. The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” is ancient. You can find it in the OT in Number 27: 17. In this case, sheep without a shepherd calls attention to Jesus’ emotional reaction to the condition of the people. Jesus is moved with the deepest compassion.
The word for the “deepest compassion” in the original Greek, believe it or not, is related to the bowels. In other words, Jesus is moved to the depths of his being because of the terrible condition of the people who are being “thrown down.”
These are strong words of oppression.
Next, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful. How is that connected to the oppression and Jesus’ compassion for the people? Again, the original language helps. The word for “harvest” means “gathering in” but is also a word associated with healing. So, this harvest will be therapeutic. To drive the point home, those who participate in the harvest are in fact, doing the healing and being healed.
And this is what Jesus calls people to follow him to do. I think this is significant to consider today, especially keeping mind what is happening all around us. Sadly and unfortunately, many religions, including Christianity, have interpreted the “making disciples” and “the harvest” as seeking out people who they think are doing things wrong or who are “sinful” and then rounding them up to convert them to a “better” existence, to correct their path. Ask any LGBTQIA family, colleagues or friends about conversion therapy.
And yet, what Jesus did and encouraged his followers to do was to notice those who were marginalized, hurting, oppressed, pushed down—the sheep without a shepherd. They needed healing. This was the push, the movement, the motivation. Some of those were Jesus’ own disciples, for sure. But others were those who society [and religions] deemed unclean, unworthy, sinners for sure. And don’t misinterpret this. I’m not saying that “we are all sinners” and “we all fall short of God” in this case. No, this is not a general call. Jesus was moved with compassion and Jesus was hurt physically, mentally, and spiritually by seeing all those who were being pushed down.
So what does this mean for you, for me, for all of us? A lot. In a politically-charged and sometimes overwhelming society in which we have trouble discerning what is true, what is not, etc—what if we just looked for those who were mistreated? I don’t mean rich politicians or business people or celebrities or star athletes who are claiming to be marginalized. I mean, really, the people who are pushed down. For their gender identification or expression. Really? They are just living their lives, hurting no one. And yet, they are oppressed. I mean Black & Brown people, Asian people, friends of ours, and colleagues, and family, who are judged simply because of how they look. Really? They are just living their lives as anyone else. We are only a human race. I mean our friends and family members, our colleagues, who love the same gender or who are still working that out, or who love both genders. Really? They are just loving people and connecting. I mean people who are torn from their homes because of war, violence, or political leanings. Really? They are just trying to survive. And, I mean those who struggle just to make ends meet and cannot find enough funds to put food on the table, even with three jobs. Really? They are working harder than I ever will.
You see, the disciples Jesus called were not called to make a church, an institution with great walls and spires and beautiful architecture and religious piety. They were called to be moved with compassion to their very core by the injustices in the world. To sit and stand and walk and hold hands with those who were pushed down and oppressed. And in fact, these folks were the ones called to be with Jesus. And they were with Jesus. And they still are.
And there we should be.