The Ministry of a Shepherd: They Don’t Need to Go Away
Matthew records an account during the ministry of Jesus that took place after the execution of John the Baptist. The Gospel accounts that after Jesus learned of those events, He withdrew to a deserted place alone. The people soon discovered where Jesus was, and a large crowd gathered on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to spend time with Him. Here, we see the compassion of Jesus who, despite His own personal sorrow, saw that the multitudes were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He was moved with compassion for them and healed the sick among them.
The people were so enraptured by Jesus that they lost track of time (has that ever happened to you?). When evening came, the disciples went to Jesus and suggested that He should send the people away, since it was getting late. From the disciples’ perspective, the people needed to go home or into the villages to buy something to eat.
These are the same Jesus-followers who had earlier found him by a well talking with a woman past dinner time and encouraged Him to eat and heard Jesus respond, “I have food that you know not of” (John 4:32). Could it be that we, too, miss the spiritual for our preoccupation with the physical?
Jesus responded to the disciples in Matthew 14, “They don’t need to go away. [They need you to] give them something to eat.” The emphasis is on what the people need, more than what the shepherd may want. That same principle is true in the church. People don’t need to go away. They need you to give them something to eat.
People don’t need to go away. They need you to give them something to eat.
I wonder if in our fixation on the last part of Jesus’ instructions, we’ve missed the emphasis on the former. While it is true, we need to feed them, it is also true that they don’t need to go away. The idea is that this is where they need to be. Yet, like wandering sheep, too often, crowds are going away from the church today. The Lord reminds us in Scripture that they, too, are the responsibility of the shepherd.
It has become acceptable in the church today that the “back door” allows the exit of as many sheep as the “front door” welcomes.
The Lord rebuked the unfaithful shepherds in Ezekiel 34 for their lack of concern for the sheep who had wandered away. The sheep had wandered and become prey (34:5; cf. John 10:12), they were scattered across the world (34:5-6; cf. 1 Kings 22:7), and most significantly, no one was going after them (34:6, 8; cf. Jeremiah 10:21). Sadly, the shepherds were both unfaithful and unconcerned.
Contrast that attitude with that of the Lord, who said in vss. 12-13 (cf. Jer. 23:3) – “I will bring them back.” Pastor, don’t let the sheep just wander away. Bring them back.
To be sure, sheep wander for a variety of reasons: some for their own sin; some due to the oppression of the enemy; and some because of the carelessness of the shepherd. But regardless of why they are missing, it is the shepherd’s job to cause them to return.
The Gospel writer tells us in Matthew 9:36, Jesus had compassion on the multitude because they were scattered (emphasis mine). The shepherds were under indictment in Ezekiel 34 because the sheep were scattered under their watch and they did not bring them back.
The error of the leaders was their flagrant disregard for the people, letting them be scattered without looking for them (vv. 5–6). Three times in verses 5–6 Ezekiel mentioned that the sheep were scattered. The chief job of a shepherd was to prevent such a catastrophe. Ezekiel was probably alluding to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities which had scattered Israel and Judah among the nations. The shepherds had been unable to prevent the very thing they were appointed to guard against.
If the shepherd can’t prevent the sheep from being scattered, he must at least seek to repossess them. We are not given the luxury of in vitro fertilizing our congregations with custom-made sheep. Nor are we given the alternative of dismissing some wandered-away sheep because we like the fact that they are no longer in the fold or we perceive that it is not worth the effort to retrieve them.
When the sheep are scattered, regardless of why they are gone, it is the mandate of the shepherd to bring them back. We cannot simply focus on bringing in new sheep and disregard bringing back those who have left. We must follow the example of the Good Shepherd and be moved again with compassion for all the sheep.