The gospel of Matthew has more to say about Christ’s compassion than any other New Testament book. The King James translators render six Greek words—five of them are verbs, the other an adjective—as compassionate, or with verb phrases like have compassion on, be moved with compassion, obtain mercy, have mercy, and had pity. Zeroing in on the four gospels, in aggregate these six Greek words appear 13 times in book of Matthew, 7 times in the much shorter book of Mark, 7 times in Luke, which is a bit longer than Matthew. Surprisingly, none of those six words appear at all in John’s gospel, or, for that matter, in any of John’s writings.
As you might have guessed, the first use of any of these six words is at Matthew 5:7, where it appears in the Sermon on the Mount as the phrase “obtain mercy” in the King James Version: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” The next appearance of any of these six words is in Matthew 9. We shall spend much of our time this afternoon in Matthew 9. To get some background, we shall start at the beginning of the chapter.
Matthew 9:1 So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.
Commentators agree that Christ’s “own city” is Capernaum. Christ crossed over the Sea of Galilee, travelling west.
With the narrative of that healing, chapter 9 continues the theme of chapter 8, which narrates some six specific miracles. Additionally, Matthew 8:16 notifies us more generally that Christ healed “many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick.” Carrying this theme forward, chapter 9 narrates six more healings. Depending on how you count them, it comes to about twelve specifically identified healings in the two chapters.
As chapter 9 opens, Christ has just returned from an apparently brief trip to the east of the Sea of Galilee. On His way there, He stilled the wind and waves, as narrated at Matthew 8:23-27. Chapter 8 closes with Christ’s casting out at least two demons, maybe more, into a herd of pigs. Hearing about this incident, all the residents of the nearby city came out to meet Him, but upon seeing Him, asked Him to depart. Matthew tells the story in chapter 8 verses 28-34.
So, in chapter 9, He is back on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, in Galilee proper, north of Jerusalem. In Isaiah 9:1, the prophet refers to the area as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Unlike the demography of Jerusalem and its immediate surrounds, in Galilee a large number of Gentiles commingled with the Jews. In fact, some areas of Galilee were predominately Gentile. That will become an important point later on.
Once back home from His brief journey to areas east of the Sea of Galilee, Christ heals a paralyzed man, as we saw at Matthew 9:2. Verses 18-26 describe His healing of a woman who touched His garment and His subsequent raising of a girl who had recently died. Verses 27-31 describe His healing of two blind men and verses 32-34 describe His healing of a man who was mute and possessed by a demon. That totals to six healings in one chapter, apparently in short order, all in the general vicinity of Capernaum. Hang on to the fact that these two chapters rehearse so many miracles. That too will become important as we move on.
That brings us then to the second occurrence of the word compassion, near the end of the chapter:
Matthew 9:35-37 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
The inclusive language is interesting. Jesus went to all the cities and villages, healing every sickness and every disease. Nothing was too challenging for Him. To how many cities did He go? How long did this segment of His ministry last? How many were healed? The Scriptures are silent. Matthew 4:23-25 describes His popularity, indeed His fame, as He preached and healed in Galilee. In today’s parlance, He was quite a celebrity.
But Matthew does tell what motivated Christ’s actions: Compassion for the people who thronged Him drove Him on. What was it about the people, what was it about their situation, their circumstances, which elicited this impelling compassion from Him? Verse 36 tells us that He saw the people as “weary and scattered.” We will pause to examine those two descriptors, weary and scattered.
The Greek verb behind weary literally means “to loose” or “to set free.” But, not in a good sense, as to liberate an animal from a trap or to set free a slave. Rather, it carries the connotation of irresponsible abandonment, as when an adult releases his grip on a young child’s hand in a busy parking lot, permitting him to run at will, imperiling himself. Metaphorically, the verb behind weary means “to dissolve,” “to exhaust,” and “to grow weak,” “to become despondent.” Despondency can cause physical fatigue, often manifested as ennui, a certain bleak melancholia which results from exhaustion.
To grasp the shades of meanings, let us take a look at some other passages where the Greek word behind weary appears. In Hebrews 12, a number of translations follow the New King James Version when it renders the word as discouraged twice that chapter.
Hebrews 12:3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your soul.
The sense is explicit here. Paul is not referring to physical exhaustion. Rather, it is a matter of the spirit in man: discouraged in spirit. For the second instance in the same chapter, drop down to verse 5:
Hebrews 12:5 My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, or be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him.
Again, the word rendered “weary” in Matthew 9:36 is here rendered “discouraged.” As a third example, consider
Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.
Not the word weary, but the term “lose heart” is that same Greek verb rendered “weary” in Matthew 9:36. Paul is speaking of discouragement or even of despair.
In its various occurrences, other translations render that word weary as “harassed,” “dispirited,” “troubled” and “bewildered.” Christ felt compassion for the people not because they were physically tired or even physically oppressed, but because they had become discouraged, despondent; they felt constantly harassed, or harried, or, as one translation puts it, assaulted. That was the zeitgeist of the day, as seen by Christ Himself.
What was it which so mentally fatigued the people, so discouraged them? Luke 11 provides a good clue. Notice Christ’s characterization of the Jewish leadership, as stated at
Luke 11:46 Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
Later on, Peter, addressing members of the “party of the Pharisees” at the Jerusalem Council, refers to the traditions of the fathers which had become nothing less than a relentlessly exhausting yoke to the people:
The leadership had so burdened the people with the constraints of the oral tradition, the halakha, that they had grown dejected, harried. As a brief sidebar, Christ, as recorded at Matthew 11, avers,
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
Let us now look at the second word Christ uses in Matthew 9:36. It is translated “scattered abroad” in the King James Version, but that is not really the best translation. This is a really interesting word. The Evangelical Heritage Version renders Matthew 9:36: “because [the people] were downcast.” The Greek verb actually means, “to throw down.” The verb appears at Acts 27:29, where the sailors cast, or drop, four anchors in the storm. The word also appears at Matthew 27:5, where Judas casts down the silver in the Temple before he hanged himself. The verb connotes both haste and violence, and that probably explains why the concept of scattering became linked to the verb. For example, in dropping anchor, there is inevitably a splashing or scattering of water. The coins, thrown on the floor of the Temple, probably scattered in all directions.
It is not surprising that other translations render this word as “dejected,” which, by the way, literally derives from the Latin words for throw and down, hence, throw down. Still other translators opt for “aimless,” “cast down,” and “cast away.” More metaphorical approaches to the passage use such descriptors as “distressed” people, those who were “helpless” and “miserable.” I really think it is The Living Bible which best captures the tenor of the verse as a whole:
Matthew 9:36 (The Living Bible) And what pity [H]e felt for the crowds that came, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know what to do or where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.
Truly a tragic picture of masses of people disoriented, not knowing up from down, as it were. They were, as we say, at sea. Such disorientation dissolves confidence; a disoriented person cannot be certain his actions are the right ones—and usually they are not! He seldom takes the right step, makes the right decision. Spiritually, these people were somnambulists, really in a bad way, like people walking in their sleep, ambulatory while sleeping.
The following verse may inform this image of a people not knowing how to help themselves:
Daniel 12:4 (The Message) Put the book under lock and key until the end. In the interim there is going to be a lot of frantic running around, trying to figure out what’s going on.
The Complete Jewish Biblesays that “Many will rush here and there . . .” The Good News Translationsays that “many people will waste their efforts trying to understand what is happening.” The image is one of futility, an image of the expenditure of energy without the associated accomplishment of any work. In other words, it is a nightmarish image of people “spinning their wheels” and getting nowhere. The New American Bible (Revised Edition) says, “Many shall wander aimlessly. . . .” These all may be pretty fair descriptions of the dispirited, dejected multitudes of Christ’s day.
Christ’s characterization of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” further clarifies the meaning of weary and scattered. At the same time, His comment indicates His assessment that the leadership of the people was far from adequate. The religious leadership in Jerusalem had let the people down, and that in a big way. The prophet Ezekiel’s words are pertinent:
Ezekiel 34:2-10 [breaking into verse 2] “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” says the Lord God, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”—therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.”
In the remainder of the chapter, which is in fact a Messianic prophecy, God tells how He will search out and find His sheep (in verse 11) and (in verse 25) that He will make a covenant of peace, the New Covenant, with them. With the establishment of His church in AD 31 and the destruction of the Temple just less than 40 years later, God did just as He said He would do in verse 10, that is, “deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” God does not say here He would destroy the Jewish leadership. Rather, He says He will deliver His sheep from it.
The spiritual descendants of those blind leaders of Christ’s time currently occupy the rabbinate (that is, the office of rabbi) and by extension, those spiritual children also are the ministers of the false churches. Pointedly, they are still misleading people to this day. They are still around; God has not destroyed them—yet. But God has delivered His true flock from them; God’s flock does not listen to them, but to the True Shephard, as Christ said they would at John 10:27. We should be thankful to God for His care for us. Indeed, at Jeremiah 3:15, God says He will do more than separate His people from the irresponsible shepherds. He, the God who provides, will provide them with responsible shepherds, with good ministers, as he has done today in His church.
Jeremiah 3:15 And I will give you shepherds according to My heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Importantly, Christ does not describe the multitudes which thronged Him on every side as listless, lethargic, indifferent, apathetic. They do not suffer from the doldrums we experience on those dry, sweat-drenching dog days of summer. Christ diagnoses the peoples’ ailment differently, but properly: A people exploited by irresponsible leaders who had emotionally abandoned them, choosing rather to abuse them for their own gain. As such, the people remained untutored in the truth of God, truly, the blind led by the blind. Sick, miserable, harassed, discouraged, they relentlessly, frenetically search for answers, for solutions which their leadership refuses to provide. They give Christ no rest. And, in His compassion for them, He addresses their needs.
At this point, we will go back to home base, to Matthew 9, this time to verse 37.
Matthew 9:37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
Christ did not say, “The field is big” where the noun field would represent the world, consistent with the symbolism in the Parable of the Sower, where Christ plainly says, “The field is the world.” He knew better than anyone that there were many people in Galilee, that the population was “plentiful.” And, yes, He knew the world at large was a big place.
Harvest does not mean field. Harvest means harvest. It is a gathering in, or a gathering together, a reaping. It has more than one application in the Scriptures; Here are three of them.
The image of harvest can refer to the gathering of people into God’s Kingdom, an end-time event. This is a prophetic application. We see this application in the Parable of the Tares at Matthew 13:30.
Matthew 13:30 Let both [that is, the wheat and the tares] grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
Christ refers to the same event, without using the noun harvest, in Matthew’s account of the Olivet Prophecy:
Matthew 24:11 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Notice, in this application, it is the angels who do the gathering. Returning to Matthew 13, this time to verse 39. Here, Christ defines the angels as the reapers of the harvest.
Matthew 13:39 The enemy who sowed [the tares] is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.
A second application of the image of harvest also is prophetic. It relates to the Day of the Lord, the day of His wrath. This is the sense the apostle John uses the noun harvest at:
Revelation 14:15-16 And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Thrust in Your sickle and reap, for the time has come for You to reap, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So He who sat on the cloud thrust in His sickle on the earth, and the earth was reaped.
For the third application of the image of harvest, we need to go back to Matthew 9. Here, the context is different; the sense and the setting are not end-time as in Matthew 13, Matthew 24 (the Olivet Prophecy), or in John’s discussion of the Day of the Lord at Revelation 14. For, as we have seen in Matthew 9, Christ is talking about the current situation with people in Galilee of His day, the compassion He has for them. So, this third application is not a prophetic application at all. Indeed, in the next chapter, Matthew 10 (as we will see later on), Christ sends the disciples—He does not send angels—to do a work of healing and preaching, just like He had done, to address their needs.
Christ seems to be saying that there was a crop, if you will, a crop to be gathered in right then and there. There is some “fieldwork” to do, as it were. The disorientation and distress of the people made conditions ripe for a successful work among the harried multitude. John 4 provides a second witness of this application of the image of harvest. In the context of John 4, Christ has just finished His discussion with the Samaritan woman. She has returned to town, where she will tell the men of her adventure at the well. The disciples, who had gone to purchase food, return and urge Christ to eat. He replies,
John 4:32-38 “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!
Skipping to verse 38:
John 4:38 I sent you [not the angels] to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.”
Christ is explicit, the field, that is, the world, is already at the point of harvest. He goes on to say that the disciples are the reapers. He then reminds them that He had sent them to gather, to reap the harvest.
The particular harvest of which Christ speaks in John 4 and in Matthew 9:37 is not future. It existed then and there. And, it was “plentiful.” The meaning of the Greek adjective behind that word is “large,” “much,” “great,” “many,” “abundant.” Transliterated from the Greek, it is poly, like in the noun polytheism, many gods.
Yet, Christ laments: All this work to do, and only a few reapers, only Christ and His disciples. No wonder, in Matthew 9:38, He asks His disciples to pray that God, the Lord of the harvest, will send more laborers to work His harvest.
God-willing and the creek does not rise—or the Atlantic Ocean, at the Feast I shall look a bit more at the harvest and at those whom Christ commissions to gather it, focusing on what His sending means to us today.
We shall see that Christ’s characterization of the multitudes as discouraged and dejected, wandering about looking for answers, harried and disoriented, well describes the people of Israel today. Israelites of this time, so thoroughly overwhelmed by the flood of lies which Satan spews out of his mouth, have come to a point where they cannot tell the difference between true and false, between appearance and reality, between actuality and illusion, between substance and mirage.
Satan’s lies deeply, deeply penetrate every aspect of life. They touch marriage (as with the lie of same-gender wedlock and transgenderism). His lies pervert science (as with evolution and climate change) and contort public policy (as with abortion). His deceit reaches into matters of family, religion, politics, statecraft, education and economics—you name it.
The flood of these lies batters ancient institutions, is in the process of overwhelming them. And, the irresponsible secular and religious leadership is unable and unwilling to teach the people the truth. Israelites—like the guy next door—are real people with real problems, living in a world of fantasy, a fake world of games and glittering technology. Color it all tinsel. Rejecting the truth of God, they live as in a parallel universe, a universe described not by God’s laws of nature and morality, but best by the lawless perversity of Satan’s mind. And, tragically, they have no clue.
Perhaps Yeats had it right when he wrote of the fanaticism of this age, a fanaticism which is in fact a symptom of the shaking of our institutions. He wrote:
The best lack all conviction, while the worse
Are full of passionate intensity.
Receive Biblical truth in your inbox—spam-free! This daily newsletter provides a starting point for personal study, and gives valuable insight into the verses that make up the Word of God. See what over 145,000 subscribers are already receiving.