Sheep Without a Shepherd
When Jesus came to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24), He noted a major cause of their bereft state: “they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Mt 9:36). This was not a novel development among the Israelites, for the OT prophets spoke scathing rebukes against the priests, princes, elders and kings who had forsaken the covenant and exercised their offices by human wisdom and for selfish benefit. One such withering passage is Ezekiel 34:
34:2-3 – “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.”
34:4-5 – “The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered.”
God’s condemnation falls heavy upon these unfaithful shepherds (see further denunciations in Ezk 34:1-10). They had been entrusted with the welfare of God’s covenant people, the posterity of Abraham who were to be a guiding light to their idolatrous neighbors. Instead, these leaders became corrupt and neglected spiritual guidance so needed by the populace. What resulted was a weary and scattered people, just like the generation Jesus found in first century Palestine.
God’s house of prayer had been turned into a “den of thieves” by priestly aristocrats (cf. Mt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46). Jesus again borrows His terminology from the OT, this time Jer 7:11.
What of the law-scholars, the Pharisees? Surely they as experts in Mosaic law had greater concern for the spiritual welfare of their fellow Israelites. Not so. The Pharisees sought public acclaim (Mt 6:1-18; 23:5-7); despised the masses (Mt 9:11; Lk 7:34, 39; Jn 7:49); lay unnecessary burdens on people (Mt 23:4); defrauded widows (Mt 23:14); and, worst of all, rejected the Messiah of OT prophecy thus “[shutting] up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Mt 23:13).
This is why Jesus laments: “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Mt 9:37-38). This is also why He warns: “He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber … All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers … The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy … He who is a hireling and not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them” (Jn 10:1, 8, 10, 12).
Jesus boldly, but not arrogantly, proclaims Himself “the good shepherd”: “I know My sheep, and am known by My own ... the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out … he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice … I lay down My life for the sheep” (Jn 10:3-4, 11, 14-15). Jesus stands in stark contrast with those self-proclaimed leaders of His own day who cared nothing for the sheep but only for power, profit and prestige.
There is a general sense in which we are all our brother’s keeper (cf. Ph 2:3-4; Gal 6:1-2; Jas 5:19-20; Heb 10:24-25; Rom 15:1-2; etc.). Each of us must be observant, alert to each other’s weaknesses, dangers, needs. We must love our brothers and sisters and have the courage to reach out, speak up and bear their burdens. This is difficult, for woven into our social fabric is non-judgmentalism, aloofness and a live-and-let-live attitude. It is easy to imbibe these values when, truth be known, it is messy, inconvenient and painful to get involved with the problems of others.
But there is a specific sense in which elders shoulder a special responsibility to co-shepherd the Lord’s people along with the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4); “that great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13:20). The sheep belong to the Lord, not the elders, but elders must develop the same heart for the sheep that the Lord has. In fact, the knowledge that the sheep belong to the Lord and should be judged on that basis helps allay the frustrations, irritations and weariness that can creep in when dealing with people and their foibles. On the other hand, the sheep must be open to the voice of their shepherds and come to trust their loving leadership.
Each of us is writing our legacy every day. For those who take up the challenge of service, whether formally (elder/deacon/preacher) or informally as a “brother’s keeper,” there is joy and purpose unsurpassed by other earthly endeavors. As we age and begin to examine our impact on the world, our minds will turn to the people we touched – our spouses, children, extended family, neighbors, co-workers, fellow students and even those casually encountered in the course of daily life. Are we concerned about them? How do we show it? Are we proactively creating opportunities to extend compassion and spiritual strength to them? Or have we been overtaken by mundaneness of life? Spiritual maturity prioritizes the important and culls out what distracts, corrupts and harms. Jesus looked upon the hills of Galilee and Judea and saw a lot of lost sheep and pitifully few shepherds. Are you helping Him look after His sheep?