Sheep without a shepherd

Matthew 9:35-38

The lost sheep

“They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”(verse 36)

When Jesus began His ministry He found the Jews, God’s own people, spiritually blind and woefully ignorant of God’s ways. There were some Gentiles who were better informed! (Luke 7:1-10)

Who was to blame for this situation? The fault lay with their teachers, the scribes and Pharisees, who had perverted God’s Law (Ezekiel 34:1-6). They had made it into an impossible burden by thousands of additions (such as the Sabbath rules) that ordinary people could not understand or even hope to remember, and then condemned them for failing to reach the impossibly high standard that they had set, smothering with guilt those who genuinely wanted to please God (Luke 11:46). At the same time, the Jews’ genuine yearning for their Messiah had become entirely political in focus.

The ripe harvest

“The harvest is plentiful…”(verse 37)

Whether or not people are aware of their need for salvation, they have an innate hunger for God that in many cases can be readily awakened. When Jesus began His teaching ministry, people flocked to hear Him because of His fresh and enlightening approach to the Law (Matthew 7:28,29). It wasn’t that He was ‘liberal’ in His interpretation of it – in fact, the Sermon on the Mount is highly demanding. And He was not afraid to challenge long-held assumptions (Luke 4:23-27).

The whole world is crying out for the Gospel. Even in highly ‘Christianised’ countries, the continual turnover of successive generations means that there is always a harvest field in which to work. The Gospel doesn’t need to be watered down in order to attract people; it just needs to be presented in a way that speaks to the modern man and woman.

The workers

“… but the workers are few.”(verse 37)

Evangelism is just the first step. Besides missionaries and evangelists, the church also needs teachers and pastors to feed and protect the flock. Sheep require a great deal of work and care, and shepherding is a demanding, full-time occupation. The Pharisees would have thought such a role beneath them (shepherds were considered to be unclean).

Agricultural work has always been hard and low-paid (which is why in the UK so much of it is done by immigrants). And there is little or no glamour in Christian ministry; it is stressful, poorly paid, and has no status in the eyes of the outside world. Success seems to come easily to some, but many Christian workers toil for years while seeing little in the way of fruit.

The Lord of the harvest

“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest field.”(verse 38)

The world must be thought of not merely as enemy territory (full of danger) but as Christ’s harvest field (full of opportunity). Workers are needed to seek out the ripe fruit, pick it and bring it home. This will be no easy task, but their hard labour will eventually bring its reward (Psalm 126:5,6).

Jesus is the true Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11,12). The Church is His flock – and so the responsibility for its welfare is ultimately His, not ours. The evangelists, missionaries, pastors and teachers needed by the Church should not be ‘volunteers’ but appointees: chosen, called and gifted (Ephesians 4:11-13) by the Lord of the harvest to work for Him in His harvest field. “How can anyone preach unless they are sent?”(Romans 10:15) Our responsibility is to be alert to His calling, willing to respond, and faithful to carry out whatever task He assigns to us.

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