In Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus is in the midst of his incredible ministry. Having come out of his sermon on the mount teaching he is now traveling around healing people, casting out demons, debating with the religious leaders, etc. He comes out of raising the dead daughter of synagogue leader, and healing two blind men into our passage that we heard a moment ago. Listen to this again,
35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
When he saw the crowds, he had “compassion” on them. The Greek word here is one of my favorite Greek words; both for its meaning and the fact that it’s just fun to say – splagitzomai. It’s the same word used just a short while later in Matthew when Jesus sees the crowd of 5000 who are getting hungry and he has compassion on them and asks the disciples to feed them. Splagitzomai is translated as compassion but it’s more than just empathy or pity; it literally means a compassion or concern that originates down in the inner most part of a person, literally down in their bowels and it wells up within them. This is a deep, deep compassion for others, for the plight of others. Jesus is going through the various towns and villages and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world and as he encounters the people he has splagitzomai for them; “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Sheep without a shepherd are just wandering around, no direction, no guidance, no boundaries, no purpose in what they’re doing. They’re just grazing, they’re just there. This is still true today, so many in our world are out there just wandering, no direction, no purpose, important questions rolling around in their hearts and their minds going unanswered because they don’t know where to look for answers. We have to ask ourselves, are we offering a vision of life that provides direction, purpose, meaning or are we just offering religious services and programs?
Jesus looks at his disciples at this point and he tells them,
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
This analogy sets up an important contrast that we need to unpack a little, the harvest and the workers. The harvest is connected with the people Jesus feels compassion for, the sheep without a shepherd, those who are wandering without direction, purpose and with questions about all of this. The workers are those that the Lord provides, “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers” presumably those who can offer what the sheep without a shepherd need – those who can give that direction, that purpose, that vision. Jesus’s charge here is to more than just individual believers to fulfill their evangelistic mandate – this call is to the church to rise up and remember her purpose.
This is so important today, because for quite a while the church has abdicated its responsibility here. We have been willing to be the purveyors of religious goods and services, offering programs and the like without any real vision for a different way of doing life with significance and purpose – and when there is a void like that, it will be filled by other things. And so what we are seeing in the absence of the church offering this incredible alternative vision of life in the Kingdom of God, we have news media and politicians offering us the anti-vision of life. They like to blame each other, but they need each other to get their messages out. You see what they are doing is telling you how awful your life will be if these other people are in power. It’s an anti-vision of life, it’s not pointing to a particular direction necessarily, it’s just saying that direction is bad – you should be afraid of going that way. And by doing this they get to set the narrative in the world so that people who are asking questions and seeking direction and purpose and aren’t finding it anywhere else just listen to that and jump in there because at least they’re pointing somewhere – at least there is some narrative to follow from them, whether it’s positive or not. Sheep without a shepherd will follow whoever is loudest.
But in the midst of all of this, stands Jesus saying, “The harvest is plentiful, it’s ready, it’s ripe but where is my church? Where are my people who are called by my name and filled with my Holy Spirit so that they can show the world something truly different, a vision for life that is led by the Spirit, that is peaceful because we know that with all this world has to offer, it can’t offer joy and peace and purpose and meaning.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on 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 workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” This is our purpose friends. This is why we are here, our world is struggling, so many people just go through the motions of this life with now purpose, no meaning and they wonder if that is all there is. And with everything that has happened in the last two years there are more people asking those questions and we have more opportunity to reach them with the vision of the gospel and the Kingdom of God then we have ever had before. The harvest is truly plentiful and Jesus is asking his church to go and offer what only his church can offer. To pray that God would raise us up in the power of his Holy Spirit to join him in the work of shepherding the precious sheep of the Lord. So…church. What do you say? Are you ready?
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