This past Sunday, our church explored a story about how Jesus looked out at the crowds who were following him and, when he saw them, his heart was moved to compassion because they were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). I always thought it was just a bunch of poor or sick people who Jesus was looking at, but I think something more poignant is happening here. Something that speaks a profound word for us today.
First of all, Jesus is ministering in Israel, so the crowds he’s looking at are fellow Israelites, those who hold a shared heritage and hope as God’s chosen people. That’s important, because the metaphor of “sheep without a shepherd” has a long history in the Hebrew Scriptures as a condemnation against the religious leaders who fail to care well for the people of Israel (like in Ezekiel 34 or Numbers 27 or 1 Kings 22). When Jesus sees what’s going on in the Israel around him, what he sees is that those charged with representing God to the people are actually creating barriers that keep the people from experiencing God. And it moves him to deep compassion.
I need to hear this. I need to know that the deep wounds I carry from my experiences with a church down in Texas 10 years ago are seen by God. I need to know that Jesus aches when there are Christians — those meant to bear witness to what God looks like — who spout hatred and perpetuate violence instead of speaking life and sowing love. I need for Jesus to care that the greatest pain in my life comes from fellow Jesus-followers who justify their destructive words and actions by baptizing them in chapter and verse quotations.
But I need more. I need for Jesus to not just be moved to compassion, but to show up and do something about it. Which is exactly what he does next. He sees the condition of these people and he turns to those closest to him and essentially says to them: Join me in bringing healing and liberation to this world; join me in showing them what God actually looks like. He does this by telling his disciples to pray that God will raise up people who will be similarly moved to compassion. But then the very next thing Jesus does is to empower them to be the answer to that prayer.
It’s convicting. God knows I want Him to make things right, to bring justice where there is injustice, to mend what is broken, but I don’t always want to be the one to help out with that. That’s vulnerable. That costs something of me. That means I have to examine myself and change some of my attitudes and habits.
What does this look like for me? This week I’m going to practice not jumping to judgment when I encounter people whom I find it difficult to be around. I’ll choose compassion instead. And you?
Joshua Gorenflo and his wife, Kya, are ministers at Kenai Fellowship, Mile 8.5 on the Kenai Spur Highway. Worship is 11 a.m. on Sundays. Streamed live at kenaifellowship.com.