Sunday, August 04, 2019

Sheep Without Shepherds

The first and last recorded requests Moses ever made of his God are almost identical. Both may be summed up in the words “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”

The first time he said it, it was very likely out of a justifiable sense of personal inadequacy. He was a mere man — a lowly shepherd, of all things — confronted with the spectacle of flaming foliage in which burned the presence of the Eternal God. For Moses, “Please send someone else” really meant “Surely, O Lord, you must be able to find someone more qualified than I am.” Moses wasn’t a lazy man by any stretch, but the scope of the task with which he was presented was breathtaking.

Not everyone might have answered God exactly as Moses did, but any sensible soul would have felt his legitimate apprehension.

The Second Time

The second time he said it was at the tail end of more than forty years of faithfully performing the very job he said he didn’t want. This time, his request had nothing to do with Moses personally. Despite their constant rebellion and rejection of his authority, Moses had developed a deeper concern for God’s people. When told he was going to be “gathered to his people”, his first thought was to make sure the Lord intended to provide someone suitable to take his place when he was taken from the scene. “Please send someone else,” he said in effect. Succession planning. The worst case scenario, Moses thought, would be for the congregation of the Lord to be like “sheep that have no shepherd.”

I like the phrase “sheep that have no shepherd”. It’s used four times in scripture that I can find, each with a slightly different context and implication.

Sheep are Not Self-Directing

When Moses said it, he was concerned that sheep without a shepherd have no direction:
“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.”
Real sheep are like that. They are followers. They don’t wake in the morning, use their little hooves to trip the lock on their sheepfold, then tread off purposefully through the heather. Left in the wild alone, they would surely end up as some predator’s lunch. Left in the fold with no shepherd, they would quickly starve. Either scenario is unappealing. What they need is someone to set the agenda, go out with them, take them where they need to go and bring them back safely. Without that, their lives are nasty, brutish and short.

Mind you, this only works if your shepherd is a good one.

If Sheep Don’t Have a Good Leader, They’ll Follow a Bad One

Some of the shepherds in Israel’s history were not up to the job. They did not view themselves as shepherds so much as lucky men with whole flocks of mutton-on-the-hoof available for the occasions on which they felt peckish. The sheep were to be exploited, not cared for.

An example: King Ahab of Israel was what we might reasonably call a bad shepherd. He decided to pick a fight in time of peace. He had no instruction from God to do it; it was simply a matter of national pride. He wanted to take back a lost city from the Syrians. Ramoth-gilead, he argued, really belonged to Israel.

Like many frivolous wars, this one was rationalized by an appeal to manifest destiny or some such nonsense. When the king was finally forced to grudgingly consult God about his war plans, the prophet Micaiah told him he had seen Israel “scattered on the mountains as sheep that have no shepherd.” Ahab was destined to die in the most unlikely way, his army to be dispersed, and his foolish, grandiose cause abandoned.

For the “sheep” of Israel, this was not the very worst thing that could have happened. They could’ve all been wiped out in Ahab’s silly war. Instead, the Lord said, “These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.” And just as God promised, the cry went up, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!” Maybe not the ideal outcome, but certainly better than everyone dying for nothing.

With the grave responsibility of making choices for others come a whole raft of temptations, and church leaders are just as subject to these as were the kings of Israel and Judah. If your current shepherd is a selfish monomaniac, losing him can actually be preferable, despite the many dangers of leaderlessness. If you are attending a church where the leadership bears even the slightest resemblance to Ahab, bailing is not the worst idea you will ever have. But sheep will follow the leaders they have, not the leaders they should have.

Sheep are Defenseless

When Matthew picks up Moses’ catchphrase and used it in his gospel hundreds of years later, people are still being compared to sheep, but this time for different reasons. Matthew is not describing Israelites in the wilderness, but rather the crowds who came to see Jesus in the various cities and villages of Galilee:
“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Galileans were not well thought of by the Jews. Their land is sometimes referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. That’s not a compliment. John contrasts Galilee with Judea, where the religious elite were to be found. “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee,” they said.

Of the two Greek words Matthew uses to describe the poor sheep of his day, one means to be “thrown down” or “cast away”. It is not just the result of neglect, but maybe even abuse. The other word means “exhausted” or “faint”. Paul uses it in Galatians when he says, “In due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

Galileans were sheep without shepherds, and sheep without a shepherd are defenseless and vulnerable. Jesus looked at the crowds that followed him and invited his disciples to get involved: “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” he said. Today, the Christian world is divided into reapers and fainters. We are encouraged to be the former sort.

Which sort are you?

Sheep are Ignorant and Hungry

Mark makes the same editorial comment as Matthew, though in a slightly more specific context. Perhaps he picked it up from Peter, who was actually present at the time. If so, Peter had almost surely heard the Lord use it too:
“[H]e had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Here Mark is referring to a very specific occasion in the same Galilean trip. Jesus had taken his disciples apart to a desolate place in order to get some kind of a break. Mark says, “They had no leisure even to eat.” Hungry and tired themselves, they arrived to find the crowds had anticipated their destination and had run on foot to meet them there.

These “sheep” had two notable features: they were ignorant and they were hungry. They might not have been conscious of the former, but they would soon be quite aware of the latter.

So first Jesus taught them, then he fed them. Had the disciples been up to the job, he would have outsourced it to them, but their reaction was “Send them away.” Let the sheep fend for themselves.

Thankfully, that changed.

Feed My Sheep

Our world is full of spiritually clueless people looking for leadership, safety and meaning. Many are society’s detritus. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say some of their lives are hellish, confused messes. “Harassed and helpless” is a perfectly fair description.

Back in the first century, Jesus said the harvest was plentiful and the laborers were few. I’m not sure a whole lot has changed. Sure, it’s mostly a Gentile harvest in our day. In some ways it’s a post-Christian harvest. Our nations have had their chance to hear the gospel in the last several hundred years, and the condition of society today is an indication the good news has not been as broadly accepted or appreciated as it ought to have been. When the Lord finally pulls the plug on the Day of Grace and calls his people home to glory, I’m confident nobody in the West will be able to say they were without some kind of opportunity.

If the Lord Jesus were here with us in person, I have no doubt he would still draw sheep to himself in incredible numbers, but he is not. Instead, he invites us to shepherd his sheep, just as he once encouraged Peter to do the same.

Like Moses, we could certainly say, “Please send someone else.” That would be a bad idea. Even Moses eventually caught on. Somewhere out there in the wilderness with the rebellious, obnoxious, willful flock, Moses grasped the importance of the task to which his God had called him and the value it has to Christ. So he began to plead with the Lord. This time it was not because he was trying to evade the job himself, but because he recognized that there was more still to be done than he could ever possibly do himself.

May we have the same spirit.

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