Compassion for the Crowds

November 17, 2021 By David McConnell

35 Jesus continued going around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. 38 Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.”

Expand Passage …
Matthew 9:35-38, CSB

Jesus Saw

Jesus saw people. That is a very simple, but profound thought. In each place he visited, his eyes were on the crowds that gathered. I think it is reasonable to assume that these crowds were much like the crowds of our day. Made up of people who struggled with all types of problems and sins. People of differing life experiences, both wealthy and poor. Those who had grown up in strong homes with loving parents, walking next to those who were abused by their family or never knew their family at all. The crowds were made up of the strong and the weak, the courageous and the anxious, the joyful and the depressed. Even in a religious culture, there were different thoughts about God. Some trusted in daily acts of piety and others placed no faith in the practice of religion. The people in these crowds did not always get along. People argued over race, money, property, faith, relationships, and even politics. Some were Jews who were friendly toward their Roman occupiers. While others were actively working to see the Romans overthrown, and neither side trusted each other very much. Their time was different from ours, but the basic human struggles were the same.

Yet Jesus saw past all of these issues to the heart of the people themselves. I am not saying he was unaware of their struggles or that he did not care about their problems. He certainly was aware, down to each detail of their lives. He was the son of God. He was the one through whom the Father created all things and in whom all things held together. Even the very breath of the people came from the Son. He knew their stories, every circumstance that had led to where they were. But Jesus saw the root issue behind every divide and difficulty. Their distress was the product of having a shepherdless soul. No matter their preferences or ideology or backgrounds, these crowds were united by their humanity. They were all a troubled people with distraught spirits, seeking satisfaction. And while most were blind to their condition, Jesus could see them, and He knew. He knew their needs and He knew that He alone held the salve for their wounds.

Sheep without Shepherds

The phrase like sheep without a shepherd takes us back to the Old Testament when God rebuked those who served as spiritual caretakers over his people. These were men tasked with helping the people understand and obey God’s law. But these leaders had neglected their responsibility in order that they might take care of their own personal needs. In a variety of ways they misused their position in order to ensure their own prosperity and pleasure. And on their watch, the people wandered from God. They became food for wild beasts (Ezekiel 34:5), the most common of which was the beast of idolatry. These idols were not simply statues made of precious stones but a variety of created things that took the place of God in the hearts of the people. They valued creation over their creator. They loved the gifts of pleasure, money, fame, and power. Their minds became distracted by the pursuit of anything they thought could satisfy the longings they felt within.

This reality was true for the crowds in the day of Jesus. They were distressed and dejected because they had no shepherd, no one to lead them back to their creator. Their hearts were set on the cares of this world. The people, materials, and circumstances that preoccupied them were the worthless idols spoken of by the Psalmist. Yet the LORD who made the Heavens stood in their midst (Psalm 96:5-6) his splendor and majesty hidden from their eyes; at least for the moment. So much divided these people and some of those divisions brought about anger-filled disagreements. Yet they were not really that different. They were all in need of one thing, to turn to the God who made them and be saved. They needed to be saved from their idolatry, from trying to find comfort in idols that could never deliver on their promises. Even if their idols could bring them some type of momentary happiness, eternal joy would be lost.

Workers Needed

Knowing this, Jesus told his followers to pray. We might think he would pray that the people would be saved, after all he discerned that many in these crowds were ready to turn to God. The harvest was ready! But Jesus asked for something different. His desire was to see more genuinely godly people moving into these crowds to serve as guides. Not just any guides, but to serve as those who would lead people back to the God who loved them and planned to rescue them. Some of these field workers might be Ministers, Pastors, or Evangelists. But the majority of them would simply be the people of God living their lives among the crowds every day. They would be people taking advantage of every opportunity they were given to point people to God. They would be those with so much joy in their heart, that they could not help but sing of God’s kindness. They would be those who had a personal testimony of God’s rescue, ready to speak often about everything their Heavenly Father had done for them (Psalm 96:1-3).

As Solomon told us, there is nothing new under the sun. Humanity still unites the crowds, those suffering as they try to find happiness apart from their creator. Jesus still sees. Idolatry is still a beast seeking to devour and Jesus is still praying for workers to go and guide the wanderers back to God. Many questions face us. Do we delight in the LORD daily, always ready to sing a fresh song about His goodness? Do we seek after Christ that we might share in his compassion for others, even those who are our ideological enemies? Do we see people? I mean really see them, as souls who will exist for all of eternity in either Heaven or Hell? Do we let the reality of coming judgment soften our hearts so that we might push aside our predisposed biases or our fear of speaking up for the LORD, in order to have the honor of pointing someone to Christ? The crowds are all around us – where we work, live, go to school, shop, drive, and vacation. They are different from us, but not really. We will never move unless we recall that we too were once part of them. They are lost as we were, but God sent someone to show us the way. And now we have become the guides. Church, there is no greater or more satisfying purpose in life than to be a chosen representative of the living God. By His grace, rise up and have compassion on the crowds.

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