Harassed and Helpless; Looking At Matthew 9:36

A verse has been coming to mind often this year when I look at the world around me. It’s Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

What Does It Even Mean?

Jesus has compassion–loving empathy and sympathy–on all of us. Why? Because we’re like sheep without a guiding, guarding shepherd. The term “sheep” is offensive, especially in light of the wolf mentality of no leaders that I followed for years.

So why does Jesus compare us to sheep?

Sheep have an instinct to follow the sheep in front of them, not necessarily the leader, but the one right in front of their nose. Even when they make bad decisions leading the others off a cliff and suffer the consequences. Sound familiar?

They flock together for protection and need at least 4 or 5 sheep around them for a reference point. A human totally isolated, or near isolated, can’t survive without a reference point. At one point we’ve all been guided by someone, good or bad.

When attacked they run and avoid, with a tendency to get lost. While separated they panic and stress. Sheep don’t usually have a standard hierarchy, the more dominant ones generally getting that far on attitude alone rather than intelligence.

How’s That Apply To Us?

Jesus saw the Jews as harassed by predators, and helpless without a guide. He sees us the same way. It’s why there is a need for a shepherd, and he’s the Good Shepherd (John 10:10-12). The one like David described in the 23rd Psalm who will keep you from wandering off a cliff if you follow him.

I have a question, how many bad decisions have you made?

I can’t count that high.

How Did We Get Into This Pickle?

Here’s the issue, our compass is broken, it just spins. I’ve been reading, and rereading, a book about philosopher Charles Taylor titled How (not) To Be Secular, and what he calls the age we live in. It’s what he calls a secular 3 age. I’ll explain.

Secular 1 is the vocational sacred/secular divide, priest or production laborer. Secular 2 is a areligious standpoint, nothing sacred except at home, keep it to yourself. Whereas Secular 3 is where religious belief or belief in God is one option, and debatable. We got here by subtracting the transcendent, and the connection to God or anything supernatural is lost.

The landscape is flattened, we have no meaning, and Taylor says it haunts us. The book goes deeper into it, more than space allows here.

Like sheep without the Good Shepherd, we’ve lost our reference point. We seek meaning by creating it ourselves, with the pressure that there has to be something more conflicting with the thought that there is nothing else in our natural world.

That’s just the up and down pressures of the natural and supernatural. We’re also pulled in all directions by the choices we have to find or create meaning, spiritualities or religions. Everything explodes in a nova under the pressure.

Taylor calls it the nova effect, new ways of being that try to get through, by, or out of the cross-pressured life. We’re scattered, lost and helpless, harassed by the pressures, our compasses just spinning. We can’t even see the link to God very well, even Christians.

What Do We Do About It?

Sheep need a reference point, we need a reference point, especially in the crosswinds of our age. Jesus is that reference point, the divine come to earth, looking for and gathering the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7).

Is being a sheep insulting? Yes, and also humbling. If you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll see where you wandered off a cliff and into the consequences of your actions. Or, you followed the butt of another sheep off a cliff rather than looking at the Good Shepherd, Son of God, Jesus.

Following him, when you actually do it, makes life not easy, but simpler. It’s something to consider.

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