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Like Sheep Without a Shepherd

Updated: May 2, 2022

Matthew 9

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. Ezekiel 34:1-6

Dear Christian,

You may notice there is a multi-week gap between our study of Matthew Chapter 8 and this chapter. Some of that is due to a family emergency, however, I believe it was simply the sovereignty of God at work as much as it disappointed me not to be studying faithfully with you. In the meantime, a study began at my church going over how a Pastor/Elder prepares their sermons. Part of the homework for the class was to be assigned a passage and write a sermon of our own. Here is what I mean by the sovereignty of God... while I was studying the passage for class, no matter how many times I sat down to read Matthew 9 I couldn't focus enough to understand it and teach it correctly. So I set it aside for a while, in the meantime, I was assigned Joshua 1:1-9 for my class it was through studying the life of Joshua and his inheritance of the leadership of God's people that I finally began to understand Matthew 9. When it comes time for Moses to lay day the reigns of leadership God tells him that he is to go up on Mount Nebo looking out over the Promised Land the Israelites are about to enter and there die and be gathered to his people. Moses then asks the Lord to appoint a leader to come after him so that God's people will not be left as sheep without a shepherd.

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” Numbers 27:15-17

Therefore, God chooses Joshua to become the leader who will shepherd His people into the Promised Land. Throughout the history of Israel, many shepherds come to lead them from Judges to Prophets and from Priests to Kings. Remember that by the time Jesus' ministry begins there had been more than 400 years without new divine revelation from God or without God speaking either directly or through a prophet to His people. Those who have been entrusted with the shepherding of God's people have grossly neglected or abused their positions of authority. And you see how God condemned their behavior through the prophet Ezekiel.

Here we return to Matthew 9 where Jesus has just been rejected by the people in the region of the Gadarenes, so he gets back in the boat with His disciples and returns across the Sea of Galilee to His own city, that is Nazareth.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. Matthew 9:1-8

Again Jesus shows us His miraculous power to heal. However, I don't think that it is the paralytic man's healing or even the faith of his friends that are truly the focus of this passage. Notice that Matthew doesn't tell us about either the friends' response or even really the healed man's response to this miracle. Instead, Matthew focuses on the response of the scribes who witness Jesus' healing of this man. The scribes are one subgroup of the religious leaders in Israel, they are men who certainly fall under the category of leaders that should have been faithfully shepherding God's people. The other unique part of this healing is that Jesus doesn't begin by simply saying, "You are healed." or some variation of that as He has in the past, instead he says, "your sins are forgiven." Why is this significant? Because the Scribes knew that only God has the authority to forgive sins, by Jesus saying this implying that the man would be released from the curse of his disease, He was claiming very publicly to have the authority of God. The next unique thing that happens in this healing is that the Scribes actually say nothing about their shock that Jesus would claim such a thing! Jesus knew what they were thinking in their hearts and calls them out on it. But what does He mean by asking them whether it is easier to say your sins are forgiven or to tell the man to get up and walk? The authority for both healing and the forgiveness of sins can only come from God. Their hypocrisy was that as long as Jesus was verbally focused on healing the physical suffering of the people they could look on His ministry with wary approval, but as soon as Jesus showed them that He had come to heal the Spiritual suffering of His people and set them free from the bondage of sin they condemned Him in their hearts. Yet the response of the people to the paralytic man's healing seems to tell us one more thing about the lesson Jesus was teaching the scribes who stood by watching and condemning.

When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. Matthew 9:8

Now perhaps the crowd missed the point entirely that Jesus was telling the Scribes that He was God incarnate, but I don't think so. Here it says that they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. In other words, the authority for both healing and the forgiveness of sins is given by God and these bad shepherds of Israel should have been about the business of doing both: attending the physical and spiritual suffering and bondage of the people of God but they were not. In many cases, they were causing the physical and spiritual suffering and bondage so rampant in the nation that had been chosen as a light to the world and to be a blessing for the nations. They were abandoning their posts as shepherds who did have authority invested in them by God.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13

After calling out the Scribes, the failing shepherds of Israel, I think it is far more than a coincidence that the very next thing Jesus does is to call Mathew (the author of this Gospel) to follow him, a man who does not know it yet, but who will become a future shepherd of God's people as one of Jesus' apostles. To understand the full context of Matthew's personal testimony we must understand what it meant to be a tax collector in Israel in Jesus' day. Imagine if our nation was invaded by a foreign enemy whose rule of law was tyrannical, cost many their lives, and decimated our way of life. Then imagine if our new overlords demanded that to show our loyalty to their government we would be required to pay hefty taxes and the ones who will collect the taxes will be our next-door neighbors or that nice kid who used to sit in the row in front of us in Church. Now on top of all this, imagine that those who have been tasked with or volunteered to collect this tyrannical tribute also demand you give more than what the law requires so that they can line their own pockets with the extra. This was essentially Matthew's job, so you can perhaps understand why the Pharisees hated him and those like him so much. Yet again, it is not Matthew or his friends that are the true focus of this passage. It is the Pharisee's response to Jesus calling and dining with these men who had been cast out from "polite" Jewish society and Jesus' admonishment of the Pharisees. These bad shepherds shouldn't have been condemning and scorning the tax collectors and sinners, they should have been guiding these men back to the flock, bringing them into repentance, and showing them God's mercy, but they were not. Not only this, but they should have been examining their own hearts before accusing and condemning others. Jesus points them to Hosea 6 where the prophet writes of the discipline of the Lord upon His unrepentant people, as He invites them to repent and return to Him with all their hearts.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

However, the Pharisees are not the only ones who respond to Jesus and His disciples' practice of wining and dining with sinners. John's disciples now come to Jesus with a dispute of their own about this behavior and touting their own religious discipline for comparison.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:14-17

Keep in mind that these disciples of John are also, of a sort, shepherds called to guide God's people to repentance and continue John's work to make the way for the Messiah. Yet they come in this instance to Christ Himself with first a boast and then a condemnation. "We are fasting, but your disciples are not and we want to know why..." As the great Shepherd, Jesus does not respond in condemnation of their attitude toward their own righteousness, as perhaps we would expect Him to. He also does not condemn them for their practice of fasting while His own disciples do not. Instead, He answers them with an explanation and an invitation.

The explanation:

This is not the season for My disciples to fast. Just as a wedding banquet would not be the occasion for sad faces and mourning.

There will come a season, when I am no longer with them, and that will be the season for My disciples to fast.

The invitation:

John himself has identified Jesus to his disciples as the long-awaited bridegroom.

The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. John 3:29

Though John was a good shepherd directing his disciples to the true Messiah who could fulfill their repentance with the forgiveness they longed for, they had not yet taken the steps from following John to following Jesus as His disciples. These men were used to the empty religiosity of the Pharisees and the demands of good works from the Law. When Jesus reminds them that He is the bridegroom and therefore while He is with them His friends rejoice, He is extending to them an invitation to join in the rejoicing just as John had done prior to his imprisonment.

How then does the comparison of putting new cloth as a patch on an old garment or new wine into old wineskins fit into what Jesus is saying? I had to do some extra study into this as well and found this commentary to be very helpful if you're interested. What this teacher reminds us is that John's disciples and the Pharisees were among some of the most religiously disciplined men of their time, they were used to such austere practices as fasting. On the other hand, Jesus' disciples were called out the professions of working men from fishermen and tax collectors whose religious practice and spiritual maturity were really just in their infancy. To ask an infant to have the same discipline as a grown man is both unjust and inviting disaster. Consider also that these men were shepherds already who had come to complain to the Chief Shepherd that the flock wasn't participating in the same duties they were. Therefore, take comfort if you are a new Christian, while you are expected to grow in maturity and in practice as a follower of Christ just as new wine ages in new wineskins, you are not expected to know and practice perfectly your faith from day one.

While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. And when Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district. Matthew 9:18-26

Here we find yet another shepherd (ruler) of God's people coming in response to what he has heard about Jesus. Like the centurion in Capernaum, this Ruler comes to Jesus asking for healing for someone he left at home. I find it interesting to contemplate that unlike the centurion in Capernaum this Jewish ruler has no protest about Jesus following him to his home in order to heal his daughter. The ruler himself, in fact, is not commended for his faith as the centurion was or even as this woman who comes out of the crowd around Jesus is who believes that if she can only brush His garment then she will receive healing. Also, take note that the crowd following Jesus consists of people who believe in His power and have listened to His teaching. The crowd around the house of the ruler (shepherd) though he himself went to seek the man who was known for His authority to heal, laughs when Jesus informs them the girl inside is not dead but sleeping telling them very clearly that she will awake and live among them again. Yet Jesus heals the woman in the crowd that follows Him and the girl in the crowd that mocks Him.

And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” But they went away and spread his fame through all that district. Matthew 9:27-31

In a perfect sandwich with the healing that began this chapter, we now see the healing of these two blind men. Remember when Jesus healed the paralytic man, He said, "Your sins are forgiven." And though the Scribes doubted, Jesus did have the authority to both make the paralyzed walk and free the soul enslaved to sin. These blind men follow after Jesus shouting, "Have mercy on us," not as one might expect... "Son of David, heal us! We want to see!" Jesus also does not simply command them to be healed, instead, He asks them if they believe that He is able to do this... if they believe He has the authority to heal and forgive. Then Jesus again does not command their eyes to be opened, instead, He says, "According to your faith be it done to you." Then their eyes are opened.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. Ezekiel 34:11-16

Where the shepherds of Israel had failed, scattered, and abused the flock, Jesus had come to gather them back to Himself. He fed them on the Word of God, healed those who were suffering, and gave strength to those whose faith was weak but growing. Still, after all this and the report of these things spreading like wildfire throughout the land, the Pharisees continued to condemn Him.

As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Matthew 9:32-34

The untrained, undisciplined, unruly masses around Jesus marveled at His authority to even set a man free from explicit demonic oppression. But the Pharisees, so religious, disciplined, knowledgeable, and orderly declared that this man simply couldn't be from God, so He must get His power from the devil. These men so full of their own righteousness had no room for the Good Shepherd finally come to gather His flock.

With all of these failed shepherds in Israel, Jesus looks out over the crowd and has compassion for them.

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:35-38

The sheep ready to be gathered only needed willing shepherds to bring them into the fold. How wonderful is it that Jesus commands His disciples who will become shepherds of His people to pray that the Lord will raise up the ones needed to gather this harvest?!

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