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Jul 22, 2018

“The Prophesied Shepherd” 7-22-18

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34
9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2018

The fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New is often well marked by the evangelists.  We read that something in the life of the Savior takes place “as it is written” or “that the scriptures might be fulfilled.”  Typically, these are followed by a citation of an Old Testament text.  There are other instances, though, when a significant prophetic theme finds fulfillment without being “flagged” as such by the New Testament writers.  Our text this morning provides a great case in point.   St. Mark relates that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.”   This is not explicitly tied by St. Mark to an Old Testament prophecy; however, a reader versed in the Old Testament will be quick to make a connection with a dominant theme in the prophets—namely that the Lord himself will appear as the Shepherd of his people.

The metaphor of “sheep without a shepherd” would have been widely intelligible to readers in the ancient world.  Civilization in the ancient Near East grew up in what is known as the “fertile crescent,” encompassing Palestine and the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  This was preeminently grazing land, home to pastoralists like Abraham who moved throughout the region with their flocks and herds.   And, even the urban populations of the Roman Empire would have had at least a general concept of the relationship between shepherds and sheep.   Sheep without shepherds were defenseless against predators.  Sheep without shepherds were almost certain to become lost.

As we look at this text I will focus on two broad considerations.  First, I will look at the way it draws attention to the Lord’s compassion and the strong hope this brings us in a lost and broken world.  Second, I will call attention to the way the sheep and shepherd metaphor challenges our cultural assumptions of radical individualism as the standard of “freedom.”

Turning then to the revelation of the Lord’s compassion, we need to appreciate that all of the Major Prophets picture the relationship between God and his people as one of Shepherd and sheep.  This is an image of both sovereignty and compassion, since “shepherd” is a standard designation for rulers in the ancient Near East.  Israel’s kings were shepherds of God’s flock.  With a few notable exceptions, though, Israel’s rulers neglected, or more frequently, “fleeced” the flock.  Our text from Jeremiah 23 makes this clear.  In verses 1-4, the Lord threatens the “shepherds” with judgment because they have destroyed and scattered the flock.  The Lord promises to gather the flock and raise up faithful shepherds to care for them.   This is followed in verses 5-6 by a promise that the Lord will raise up from the line of David one who will “reign as king and deal wisely...”  Thus, the identification of shepherds as rulers is clear, along with the hope that the Lord will take on the role of shepherd-king on behalf of his people.

This hope is sounded by Isaiah, for example, in 40:11, in words familiar to us from Handel’s Messiah, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  Likewise, in the most extended passage on the theme in all of the prophets, Ezekiel 34, the Lord’s reaffirmation of the covenant of grace is expressed as the Lord taking the role of Shepherd of his people.  "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.” (34:15) “They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the house of Israel, are my people says the Lord God.  You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God.” (34:30) Finally, to return Jeremiah, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”   When the Lord Jesus sees the crowds in Mark 6 as “sheep without a shepherd,” we understand that God’s care for his people is being manifest.

We may also note, in passing, that the phrase “like sheep without a shepherd” occurs twice in the Old Testament to point us to the importance of a leader for God’s people.   The most significant is in Numbers 27, where Moses asks the Lord to see to it that he has a successor.  “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:15-17) Joshua, of course, is appointed, someone that we easily recognize as a forerunner of Christ.  The other occurrence of the phrase is in 1 K 22:17 and 2 Chronicles 18:16. Here the prophet Micaiah prophecies the death of Ahab in battle.  “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’”  For a people to be without a shepherd means that they are left to fend for themselves as best they can.  This is invariably calamitous for sheep.

Our Lord saw the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd.”  This cannot mean that he saw them as having no leaders whatsoever.  The Jewish people in Jesus’ day had multiple layers of rulers.  They had the Roman army and administration occupying their land, bringing Rome’s version of world peace.  They had the Herodians, Rome’s puppet kings, to shape local culture and commerce, including the construction of the 2nd temple.  Then, of course, there were the high priestly families who governed the temple and administered Jewish law under Roman oversight and last, but not least, the teachers of the law who brought a distorted, legalistic piety to bear on those who sought to be faithful to the word of the Lord.  When Jesus sees the people as “sheep without a shepherd,” it can only mean that despite all these layers of authority, there is no one in authority who genuinely cares for God’s people.   The Lord’s heart, by contrast, goes out to them in compassion.

The verb “to have compassion,” (splagchnizomai) is used in the New Testament only in the synoptic gospels---Matthew, Mark and Luke.  The verb has to do with the “gut” as the anatomical seat of affection and tender feeling.  Interestingly, the verb is used only of Jesus, or of the characters in stories that Jesus tells.  So, for example, Jesus tells a story in Matthew 18 about a servant who owes his master a fortune in debt.  When he begs his master for more time to pay, his master has compassion on him and forgives the debt.  Sadly, of course, the servant goes out and throws a fellow servant into debtor’s prison.  Luke recalls two of the Lord’s most famous stories about “having compassion.”  One is the parable of the Good Samaritan.   When members of the Israelite clergy spot a man beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, they steer to the other side and press on in their journeys.  A Samaritan, however, has compassion on the man and attends to his needs.  The other is the parable of the Prodigal Son.  When the father sees from a distance his lost son returning home, he has compassion on him and runs down the road to meet him.   The first recorded instance of Jesus having compassion in Mark’s gospel is in chapter 1, when a leper approaches him and seeks cleansing.  Similar examples could be multiplied.  However, these are sufficient to make the point.   Jesus is revealed in the gospels as one who is moved to compassion by the suffering and hardship of people who have not one to look out or care for them.  Moreover, his parables make it clear that he expects his followers to develop and manifest the same spirit of grace.

Whatever else we take away from this message; this should certainly be the foremost.  We should remember the compassion of our Lord.  When it seems that we are forgotten in times of illness or discouragement or loss—when we are brokenhearted and wonder if the Lord is paying attention—we are taught by the life of the Word-made-flesh that our God is a God of tender compassion.  Even when our deepest grief is our own sinfulness and failure, even then the Lord regards us with compassion.  “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?  But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” (Ps. 130:4) To believe confidently that the Lord looks with compassion on sheep without a shepherd is to have saving faith.  This is what we should by all means hear from this text.

Before leaving the text, though, I want to draw attention to the way the biblical “norm” of shepherd and sheep challenges the individualistic spirit of our time.   Our culture proclaims that personal “choice” is the highest good and the highest form of freedom.  There is no higher truth than what is true for you.  To suggest that there is a truth that is normative for all is regarded as arrogant and destructive of individual freedom.  Sheep, however, are not particularly resourceful at resolving the uncertainties of their own situation.   They need guidance to find the way home. 

God, of course, has gifted us with intellect and amazing capacities to investigate and understand the world and life in the world.  However, we are still creatures and our understanding is limited.  Moreover, we are fallen, such that all of our natural gifts of understanding are distorted, most especially in our capacity to understand the ways of God and our true identity as God’s image bearers.  We have always been free to choose what seems best to us, but a radical commitment to our own take on life is always going to be disastrous.  The metaphor of shepherd and sheep is a reminder that our understanding is limited and that the true path of freedom is in the guidance of the Shepherd.

Niall Ferguson, in his Civilization The West and the Rest, has a fascinating chapter on consumerism.  He traces the rise of a consumer culture back to the industrial revolution, driven by textile manufacturing and the increased availability of inexpensive clothing.  He goes on to point out that even in societies which take a dim view of consumerism people want to have more than one set of clothes and, remarkably, the same kind of clothes.  So, for example, even in Marxist societies, people buy western style clothes.  Ferguson calls this a great “paradox” --that a force like consumerism, aiming at providing humanity with seemingly endless choices and options, actually tends toward the “homogenization of the human race.   It strikes me that when people do this; they are behaving a bit like sheep.  They may boast about freedom, but—at least in the area of fashion—they are not sure about which way to go.  Instead, they just blend in with the flock.  This is just one example of how in a society that exalts radical individualism, forces of conformity are still strong.  Radical individualism is a dead end.  People seek something outside of themselves for guidance.   God created us to be his “sheep.”

Our Lord’s compassionate response to the shepherd-less crowds included providing them with a meal at the end of the day.   However, deed and word go together in Christian ministry.   St. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ primary response was to “teach them many things.”  We know from other parts of the gospel that this teaching focused on the kingdom of God.  To the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low he announced that God was ushering in a new way of living for the poor in spirit, for those who mourn, for the meek, for those who were hungry and thirsty to see righteousness in the world.  Jesus came to the lost sheep and said, “This is the way, walk in it.” (Isa. 30:20-21) Through the full disclosure of the depths of his compassion in the gospel of the cross, he says the same to us.   Amen


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906