Sheep with a shepherd


As a master teacher, Jesus used everyday reality to create memorable parables and word pictures for the benefit of his listeners.

New Testament scholar Dr. Steven Notley, who himself translated over 450 Jewish parables from that era into English, claims the craft of Jewish parable-making reached a zenith during the generation in which Jesus lived. As an expert on the genre, Notley further asserts that the parables of Jesus are among the best.

Yet, we read a pair of rapid word pictures in Matt 9:35-38 and the parallel in Luke 10:1-3 which appear to me to be a confused mixing of metaphors — that is, the idea of shepherd-less sheep and a harvest. The Scripture from Matthew says, “Seeing the people, [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.’” Why abandon the image of the first parable so abruptly and switch to another?

First, note that it is the author of the Book of Matthew who combines these disparate word pictures and not Jesus himself. Jesus speaks only of the harvest here in Matthew and in the parallel in Luke (10:1-3) where this statement is not attached to sheep at all. Mark does have the “sheep without a shepherd” statement in a different, more appropriate context — as a description of the followers of John the Baptizer after his beheading at the hands of Herod Antipas (Mark 6:34).

Second, rather than being something unpleasant, sheep and shepherds have a glorious history among the people of Israel. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were renowned for their great herds, and the children of Jacob settled in a particular region of Egypt during the famine because of their prolific flocks and shepherding abilities. Israel’s greatest leader, King David, famously tended his father’s livestock before being the anointed king. Indeed biblically, the leaders of Israel often bear the name “shepherds” (2 Sam 5:2, Mic 5:5) since they must treat the people with constant tender care.

The key to understanding this mixed metaphor, I believe, comes by looking at the superior setting of Mark and Luke and the feeding of the 5,000 souls at Bethsaida (Mark 6:30, Luke 9:10). It is important to know that the Gospel writers never claim to maintain a careful chronological order of the events, but rather each ancient author tells his story in his own way.

The author of Matthew could have chosen to place the saying in Matthew 14, where we find the understandably dispirited followers of John the Baptizer seeking new direction.

“Sheep without a shepherd” takes the astute Bible student back to Moses’ words of concern for his qualified successor (Numbers 27:17). Similarly, John the Baptizer’s movement in the Galilee was significant, and with his death, the people were uncertain what to do. At the moment of John’s death, Jesus’ movement gained momentum, and the Gospel writers observe his new role as shepherd.

Jesus embodied the best qualities of Israel’s best shepherds — humility, singular devotion to God’s way, and compassion for the people. Come to think of it, he still does.

Kyle A. Kettering graduated from Xenia Christian High School in 1998, Cedarville University in 2004, and Nyack’s Alliance Theological Seminary in 2017 with a degree in ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He serves as a teaching elder at Church of the Messiah in Xenia.

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