In Matthew 9, we see a lengthy chronicle of some of Jesus’ healings and teachings and ministry to people. We see that he and his followers have attracted large crowds. As they’re making their way through the towns, Jesus is confronting Pharisees one minute and casting out demons in the next. He’s teaching on the kingdom of God one minute and healing sicknesses and paralysis the next. Anyone who’s both traveled extensively and ministered continuously knows how utterly exhausting such activity can be. It is taxing of energy and spirit. At the end of a long day of all this stuff packed into the crevice of every second, you or I would feel like kicking up our feet on the ol’ Laz-E-Boy, cold one in hand , and saying in tired frustration, “If I see one more demoniac today, I’m going to explode.”
But Jesus doesn’t do that. What does he do?
At the end of this extensive and exhaustive catalog of the day’s activities, Matthew 9:36 informs us that:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus looks out on all the people, the ones he’s been able to minister to and the huge number of people he hasn’t even had the time to make eye contact with. He sees perhaps acres of hurt and disease and sadness and brokenness, and he realizes he’s barely scratched the surface of bringing the good news of himself to them. And instead of despair or frustration, he feels compassion.
What kind of shepherd is Jesus? A compassionate shepherd.
Now, compassionate does not mean merely nice or sympathetic. The compassion Jesus feels is compassion in its deepest sense. It is an identifying love, a shared hurt. The Greek word for “had compassion” there is splagchnizomai, which connotes a yearning from the bowels. This isn’t just an emotion; it is a visceral reaction. Jesus, who would know harassment and helplessness himself, looks out on a dirty, stinky, needy mess of people -- remember, Matthew tells us they were “harassed and helpless” -- and is moved to deeply felt compassion.
The crowds are like sheep without a shepherd. This means they’re both without guidance and without protection. They’re out in the open, going about life, just minding their own business eating grass and generally being sheep, and they are unaware that any minute a wolf could come sneaking in. They don’t know that when the grass is gone, they won’t know how to get to the next pasture. And this ignorance is a burden Jesus feels in his insidest inside. This is a crucial realization, so I will risk redundancy to stress the point one more time:
This is no mere intellectual acknowledgement for Jesus. He sees this crowd and is moved to compassion – immediate, natural, deep compassion.
This is a hard, if not impossible, switch for you or I to flip on. We can see or hear people hurting and feel compassion for them. But it is hard to just look out at people doing people-y things and immediately feel compassion for them. I will confess that I am generally unmoved by the crowds I encounter every day, and if I am naturally inclined toward any emotion at all, it is usually frustration, followed by disdain.
But when I am deliberate about how I view others, by the grace of God, I am able to view them, even if just in momentary glimpses, through Jesus’ eyes.
I have sensed my own shift in outlook in being confronted head on with ignorant people acting desperate. When I was a teenager I made the dumb mistake of going with some friends to a particular Houston pool hall. I lasted all of five minutes. I was scared to death. The second we walked in, some dude standing by the door blew a bilious cloud of cigarette smoke into my face. Through the haze, I could see seated around the tables a smattering of rejected ZZ Top band members in black leather jackets holding pool cues it appeared they’d rather use for beating our brains in than for shooting pool. This was a bar, for goodness’ sake, and we were Baptists! Not wanting to die so young, I turned to my friends and said, “Let’s leave.” And we did.
A few years later, I went with some friends to see our favorite band at a downtown Houston rock club. Now, this rock club wasn’t the same as a nightclub. I’ve never been inside a nightclub, but I imagine it has flashing lights and super-tanned dudes in suits and super-plastic chicks with go-go boots dancing inside cages hanging from the ceiling. Is that right? No, this place had a huge concrete floor that might’ve doubled for a slaughterhouse, with a bar on one end and a stage on the other. We came for what was on the stage, while most everybody else came, it seemed, for what was at the bar.
I remember, as the place filled up with people, and we were all packed in there like sardines, seeing the increasing drunkenness and hearing the intoxicated laughter and avoiding assorted intoxicated shenanigans, and then smelling the tangy scent of “funny” cigarettes, and I remember above all else getting angry. I felt, as any good hellfire holiness Christian would have, a heapin’ helpin’ of righteous indignation. I was irritated (praise God). I was offended (praise Jesus). I was an incredibly sensitive jerk for Jesus, and I looked at all those lost people doing -- gasp! -- lost people things, and my sense of moral turpitude kicked in, and I just wanted them gone. I did not want to brush shoulders with such people.
To sum up the story thus far: Pool hall, scared. Rock club, angry.
Fast forward about ten years. I had done some growing up, let me tell you. One spring evening, I went with a few of the guys from church to the only place we could find that would let us smoke cigars inside, which in frou-frou, artsy-fartsy Nashville happens to be what is just a skoshe more sophisticated than a biker bar. It was a weird scene, man. There were a couple guys with a guitar and a harmonica playing gravel-voiced renditions of Bob Seger and The Allman Brothers for a weirdly diverse crowd, a good mix of college kids and middle-aged couples, and then, to justify the armada of Harley Davidsons in the gravel parking lot, a fair number of those ZZ Top reject dudes.
The kids were getting drunk. A few of the girls had that goofy-eyed drunkenness, that sort of “come hither” countenance that says to less-than-genteel boyfriends, “Come hither and take advantage of me.” One girl stumbled outside and her male companion pulled her tubetop down. I happened to miss that grand unveiling, thank goodness.
Someone in our group spotted a lady he knew who happened to be married but was having drinks with a succession of men who happened to not be her husband. The ZZ Top dudes were sitting around looking angry.
In my former life, I would have been scared to death in such a place. Or I would have been angry at all the sin packed into such close quarters. But this night, I looked around and saw people doing desperate, deadly things, all in the guise of having fun, and I don’t know if it’s the growing up I’ve done, or the desperate, deadly things I’ve been through in my own life, and although I’d hesitate to skirt pride and say it’s because I’m closer to God now, I felt above all things, sad. A few days later, I was discussing the scene we’d encountered with one of the ministers who’d accompanied us, and I told him that the only thing I could think of that night was Matthew 9:36. I thought of when Jesus looked at the crowd and had compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
I somehow glimpsed beneath stony exteriors years of hardship and bitterness, beneath desperate flirtation years of emotional neglect and insensitivity, beneath drunken behavior years of spiritual emptiness. And seeing people, not just their behavior, I was moved.
It was only a glimpse, and it was certainly colored by my own attitudes and limitations and sins, but multiplied by infinity, that’s how Jesus looks at us. It’s not just those crazy drunks and freaky fornicators who need compassion. It’s us prideful, selfish, self-centered, grace-withholding sinners who need it too. And Jesus isn’t a clock-punching shepherd who tends to us with dutiful obligation, but a shepherd who cares for us with everlasting kindness, with a deep concern for us and how things will end up for us. He is a compassionate shepherd.