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When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36.

A Sermon on Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 9:35-10:1

Remember that time when Jesus wept?  He was so moved by the pain he saw in his grieving friends Mary and Martha that he cried.  And then he did something about it.  He raised their brother Lazarus to new life.  The gospel lesson we read today makes it clear that Jesus was often deeply moved when he saw people’s pain and struggle.  When he saw the crowds, it says, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

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The English word compassion does not do justice to the Greek word that is used there.  The Greek word is much more powerful.  It means to be moved deep in one’s guts.  It’s similar to our English idea of the heart breaking, but an even closer equivalent might be to say he was torn inside.

The words translated “harassed” and “helpless” carry more of a punch, too.  Among the meanings I discovered for those words in Greek are dispirited, confused, scattered, aimless, bewildered, distraught, and distressed.  Jesus saw so much pain and lostness.  He could see the brokenness.  Many were sick or coping with disabilities.  Many were poor.  Food insecurity was a big problem in Jesus’ day.  They were at the mercy of forces they could not control, while the religious and political leaders, the shepherds who could have made a difference were preoccupied with securing and maintaining their own power.  Taxation, for example, fell heaviest on those who could least afford it.  What did they get for their tax money?  They got a king named Herod, the latest in the rapacious Herod family, who were not above murdering each other to get and maintain power.  Herod was a developer.  Their tax money went into Herod’s big, expensive building projects.  And they could not vote this man and his cronies out.

On top of that, their tax money paid for their own oppression.  It went to maintain the Roman Empire and the Roman army that was stationed everywhere.  Roman soldiers regularly strung people up on crosses to reinforce the message: don’t you dare dissent.  Don’t you dare get out of your place.  Don’t you dare resist.  They couldn’t vote these people out, either.

Think of what all this did to people’s souls, not to mention their bodies.  But many of the religious experts spent a lot of time finding fault with others who did not agree with them, or who could not practice the faith the way the experts said it must be practiced.  They did not ease people’s burdens.  They acted like “sin police.”  From almost the very beginning of his ministry, they were finding fault with Jesus.  One example is in the passage immediately before the one we read.  Instead of rejoicing when Jesus set a man free from a demonic spirit, these experts complained that Jesus must be doing this by the power of the ruler of the demons.  Lord, have mercy!

As Jesus gazed at all these shepherdless sheep, his grief echoed God’s grief in Ezekiel’s day when God’s people were being so poorly shepherded politically and spiritually.  Many were already scattered into exile in Babylon, and a second deportation to Babylon was on the way.

When God gazed on the wreckage of the community of God’s people, God was moved to the core, and God poured out blistering critiques of the nation’s leaders through the prophets, like the one we just heard in Ezekiel.  Here’s a sample:

“Thus says the Lord: you have not fed the sheep.  You have not healed the sick.  You have not bound up the injured.  You have not sought the lost and brought back the strayed.

“Instead you ruled with cruelty.  You led my people astray.

“Worst of all, you ate the sheep entrusted to your care!”

The pain of people today moves God to the core.  What must God be thinking as God surveys the flock now?  What, for example, must God be thinking about how the political and spiritual shepherds of our American flock are handling things now that we have the pandemic putting us into exile in our homes, on top of the usual struggles of life?  The current crises have pulled back a curtain so that we are forced to look at ugly realities in our life together as a nation and at wounds that remain unhealed.  Like scattered sheep without a shepherd, we Americans can’t seem to work together to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  We are doing stuff like fighting over wearing masks.  God has got to be shaking God’s head.

The critique God would deliver through Ezekiel today might sound something like this:

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