Open Matthew 9:35-38.
Matthew 9:36 (my translation)
Seeing the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and thrown down like sheep with no shepherd.
What do we mean when we call Jesus our shepherd? Do you imagine yourself as a fuzzy little lamb being stroked by the shepherd? If so, you’ve missed the powerful metaphor.
For Israel, shepherd was a metaphor for a ruler, a leader of the nation. Occasionally a priest or prophet could be called a shepherd, but it was usually the king. David literally was a shepherd until God chose him to shepherd Israel: “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (2 Samuel 5:2).
Sheep without a shepherd is therefore a picture of a nation that’s lost its ruler. As Moses reached the end of his life, he asked God to appoint a successor “so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17). When the prophet Micaiah saw a vision of Ahab dying in battle, he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” (1 Kings 22:17).
The last king of Judah was Zedekiah. The Babylonian invaders slaughtered his sons in front of him and then gouged out his eyes. From that moment in 586 BC, Israel had been sheep without a shepherd.
Among the scattered sheep in exile, Ezekiel explained that God had to remove the bad kings; yet he also promised that God would raise up a son of David to rule over them again:
Ezekiel 34:10, 23 (NIV)
10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. …
23 I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.
When Jesus described Israel as sheep without a shepherd, they had been like that for centuries. He felt their pain — sheep harassed (skullō) and thrown down (rhiptō) under empire after empire (9:36).
But just as God had said, the promised king now stood among them in the person of Jesus. He was the ruler anointed to restore David’s kingship, the shepherd of Israel. Matthew has already used that language to describe Jesus as their king:
Matthew 2:6 (NIV)
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.
When Matthew speaks of Jesus’ authority, this is what he means. He is Israel’s shepherd. That’s what Jesus was doing:
- announcing the good news of the kingdom;
- being the shepherd who restores his people (9:35).
That’s what he’s been doing since the start (compare 4:23).
The unshepherded sheep of Israel were scattered all over the ancient world in Jesus’ time. Drawing them back into the care of the Davidic shepherd would be a massive task.
For Jesus, it felt like standing in a field with a massive crop around him, and only a few workers to help bring them in (9:37). That’s why he asked his disciples to go and petition the Lord of the harvest to send out workers right across the harvest field, to every corner where the sheep were scattered (9:38).
The king will not complete this harvest alone. He appoints workers for his government, delegating his regal authority to those who ask him for help to harvest, to bring the earth back under his kingship (10:1).
We are not individual sheep, searching for existence in postmodern isolation for fear of being harassed and mistreated. We belong to the shepherd. He’s everyone’s shepherd. And the shepherd is drawing the scattered sheep together into a kingdom where we belong, a community where we care for each other the way the shepherd cares for us.
What others are saying
G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 174:
The miracles were a sign of the inbreaking new creation, where people would be completely healed.
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 166:
The language of “sheep without a shepherd” echoes Num 27:17 and Ezek 34:5, in which the shepherd is most likely messianic (cf. Ezek 34:23). Similar sentiments will well up in Jesus again at the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:34). As in the days of the prophets, the rightful leadership of Israel had abdicated its responsibility, as demonstrated by its inability or unwillingness to recognize God’s true spokesmen. “Harassed and helpless” literally means torn and thrown down (cf. Berkeley, “mangled and thrown to the ground”). Predators, and possibly even unscrupulous shepherds (Zech 10:2–3; 11:16) have ravaged the sheep. Verse 36 provides a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 309:
The term Jesus uses for “workers” here recurs in 10:10 (cf. 20:1), indicating that the workers Jesus wished to send forth into the harvest were his own disciples. … After commissioning them to pray for “workers,” Jesus commissioned them as “workers” (10:10).
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