Compassion is rightfully aroused when we are faced with the hungry, sick, and naked. And right compassion leads to right action. But compassion is not limited to the sphere of the physical, emotional, or even psychological. We often find Jesus in his earthly ministry moved with compassion by something we seldom associate with the need for compassion. Matthew 9:36, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Mark 6:34, “When He went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”
This phrase, “sheep without a shepherd,” echoes Old Testament imagery and was employed to speak of people without a king or an army without a commander. Jesus looks upon the crowds and is moved with compassion because they were leaderless.
Ezekiel 34 serves as arguably the most famous text in which the leaders of Israel are referred to as shepherds. However, in this text, though they are to serve as shepherds, they prove to be no shepherds at all. A shepherd was to provide, protect, lead, and nourish, whereas they ruled the people with harshness, injured the flock, and scattered the sheep. The Lord’s lamentation in this passage jumps off the page, “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep” (Ezek. 34:8)
When Jesus looks upon the crowd with compassion in the Gospels it is often because they are leaderless. Those appointed as spiritual authorities proved to be destroyers rather than shepherds. Their abandonment of truth showed their lack of love for God’s people.
Reflecting upon this reality, Jesus, in compassion, says 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” (Matt. 9:37-38).
He is the Great Shepherd who “makes us lie down in green pastures, who leads us beside still waters, who restores our souls. Who leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Ps. 23). And He appoints under-shepherds in the carrying forth of this ministry.
I have two paintings on my study wall at University Reformed Church. They each face me as I sit at my desk. The painting on the right is of the Westminster Assembly. This gathering of churchmen wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Directory for Public Worship. They labored for close to six years in 1,163 sessions. As they met in the Westminster Abbey, they discussed, debated, and articulated the doctrines of Scripture. This painting reminds me of the need for solid teaching and truth. Pastors are under-shepherds who are to seek doctrinal precision and labor hard as they faithfully pour out their lives for the sake of the sheep.
The painting on the left is a painting of Jeremiah weeping over Jerusalem. He weeps because he loves the people of God. This painting reminds me to love the sheep. Truth and Love. Doctrine and Mercy. They go hand in hand. You don’t know truth unless it is dripping with love. And you don’t know love unless it is founded upon truth. The church desperately needs under-shepherds committed to love and truth. Faithful under-shepherds are moved with compassion for God’s people. And that compassion leads them to proclaim truth and pour out love upon the sheep.
Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the sheep, calls men to serve His flock as under-shepherds. It is our hope and prayer as the Malawi Reformation Network that an entire generation of faithful compassionate under-shepherds, men who hold fast to doctrinal truth and manifest love for God’s people, are raised up in service of Christ’s bride in Malawi. Lord Jesus, make it so, we pray. Look with compassion upon this land and raise up men with compassion, who resemble what we see in you.
Pastor Jason Helopoulos