Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 15. Sheep and Shepherd
Mt 9:35,36 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The analogy of us as sheep and Jesus as shepherd arises a number of times in the New Testament. This comment from Matthew about Jesus’ compassion and the harassed and helpless sheep is only seen elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel (Mk 6:34) so it is probable that that is where Matthews gets it, but he sees its application in what is happening. This may not actually be an analogy that Jesus uses here but it clearly fits with his wider teaching which we will see as we go on.
The picture of a shepherd is a fairly obvious one: one who looks after the sheep, cares for them, protects them, guards them, binds up their wounds, and leads them to places where they can eat and drink. The shepherd feels for his sheep and so it should be no surprise that it is compassion that moves him to act on behalf of the sheep and heal them.
We also see his compassion when faced with a crowd in Mt 14:14 which provokes him to heal them. He also had compassion on the hungry crowd before feeding them in Mt 15:32 as well as in respect of two blind men on the roadside (Mt 20:34). Mark also shows his compassion in respect of a leper who he cleansed (Mk 1:41). Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son and compassion made the father run to greet the son (Lk 15:20). Compassion is a primary characteristic of this shepherd and it was that which so often stirred him into action to bring healing, cleansing and deliverance. It was Jesus heart going out to the widow of Nain that appeared to provoke him to act and raise up her dead son (Lk 7:13-15) and it was Jesus’ ‘pity’ that the father of a young demoniac appealed to (Mk 9:22) and was also key in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33).
Jesus spoke out his heart when he taught, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). These are the words of the gentle and compassionate shepherd, offering help to all are worn by the ways of life.
Speaking into the religious life of Israel at that time, Jesus recognized the loads that were imposed on ordinary people by the religion imposed by the Pharisees and he came to the ‘weary sheep’ to lift off such loads: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:3,4) He, by comparison, came to make the loads that we carry appear light as he pulls alongside us and shares the weight.
We will leave many of the references to Jesus being the shepherd to later studies but simply note it was a key analogy. At the end Jesus, warning the disciples what would happen, did it by referring to the prophetic scriptures: “Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” `I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Mt 26:31,33 quoting Zech 13:7) a clear reference to what would happen when he was arrested and taken away, tried, and crucified.
When Moses, aware he had not much time left, appealed to the Lord to provide another to follow him, he prayed, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num 27:16,17) The Lord immediately appointed Joshua who we tend to think of more of a general leading the army, and yet it is the picture of a shepherd that Moses uses, perhaps having come to the understanding that that was what his role had been for the last eighty years – first as a shepherd of literal sheep in Midian, and then as the shepherd of Israel. Yet the picture of a shepherd was mostly attributed to the Lord Himself (see Psa 23:1, 28:9, 80:1) and the picture of shepherds in the life of Israel was a familiar one in the books of the prophets.
Now in the New Testament, it will come up again and again. For the people of a land with many sheep and many shepherds it was an easily understood analogy and one we will see again and again. It was left to John, writing many years later after much reflection, to remember Jesus specifically teaching: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” (Jn 10:11) summarizing his position and his activity on behalf of his ‘sheep’.
In the previous study we noted Jesus’ words to John’s disciples. See in them the heart of a shepherd: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (11:4,5) In Luke’s Gospel a summary of Jesus’ coming ministry is revealed through the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19 citing Isa 61:1,2) These are the words for the shepherd who had come from heaven to reach out to those who were “harassed and helpless”, telling them that the time had arrived for their lives to be changed by the power of God, and confirming the truth of those words by the power he brought.
How are we today? Harassed and helpless? Harassed simply means stressed and hassled and under pressure from the burdens of life. The outworking of these things means a weariness, often a heaviness, and these things are not uncommon in the pressures and concerns of life in the twenty-first century. The answer: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:28,29). Amen.