Each evangelist writing a New Testament Gospel expresses a specific perspective. Usually we discern this through the episodes he chooses to include or through terminology that is unique or frequently used. One of the places where the evangelist Matthew seems to leave his mark occurs in his description of Israelites in 9:36. While Mark and Luke share some elements from this story (Mark 6:34; Luke 10:2), only Matthew describes the Israelites as “harassed (eskulmenoi) and exposed (errimmenoi)” (9:36). These words occur in an explanatory clause that tells us why Jesus was moved with compassion for these people.
The structure Matthew uses here incorporates two perfect participles with a past form of the verb ‘to be’. This construction communicates a state or condition that continues over time, i.e. these people were in a harassed and exposed condition. But can we discern more clearly the specific nature of their situation according to Matthew’s analysis?
The context in Matthew 9 would suggest that this assessment relates to the religious or spiritual condition of these people. Immediately following his description Matthew asserts that the people “were like sheep lacking a shepherd.” We know from Old Testament usage (e.g. Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Jeremiah 36:30; Ezekiel 34:5) that this simile often defines a lack of religious leadership within Israel. The ministry that Jesus engages – proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every illness and every disease – seeks to remedy the people’s spiritual disorientation and discouragement. Under his care they no longer are harassed and exposed to danger.
The first participle (eskulmenoi) comes from a verb (skullw) that describes an action that causes trouble, annoyance or bother to another person or the subject (middle or passive). Sometimes the harassment is for a good purpose. For example, in Mark 5:35 (cf. Luke 8:49) the servants of Jairus report to him his daughter’s death and ask him “why is he still bothering (skulleis) the teacher?” Similarly the centurion who asks for Jesus’ help to save his servant asks Jesus not to trouble himself (me skullou) by coming to his home (Luke 7:6). All Jesus needs to do is issue the command and his servant will be healed. In both cases the sense is of petitioner bothering or troubling someone who has particular expertise or skill or power that might assist. This sense occurs in papyri from the first century.
Matthew 9:36 is the only example in the New Testament where the verb describes people in general being troubled or harassed, i.e. mistreated or molested by those who have authority of some kind. This sense of disturbance emerges very clearly in the second century A.D. as the verb occurs frequently in tomb epitaphs that warn people not to disturb the tomb. Dire curses usually accompany the warning.
The verb (riptw) describes the action of throwing (with various connotations such as to throw away, abandon,) or putting something down. For example, Judas threw down his fee in the temple and then went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). In Luke 4:35 the verb describes the consequences of an exorcism on a person. We also find it used for the exposure of unwanted infants, defining them as things thrown away (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon 11:14). In the Septuagint it frequently describes a corpse that is thrown into a field or a tomb. For example, Jael displays to Barak the body of Sisera “laid out dead” (rerimmenos nekros, Judges 4:22 (B Text)). Jeremiah describes the devastation of God’s judgment upon Jerusalem: “And the people…shall be cast out (esontai errimmenoi) in the streets of Jerusalem, because of sword and famine; and there shall be none to bury them” (Septuagint of Jeremiah 14:16). A similar text occurs at Jeremiah 36:30 (Septuagint 43:30).
Matthew defines the Israelites as people who have been mistreated or harassed and castaway in abandonment to mortal danger. The series of encounters that Jesus has had with Israelites in Matthew 8-9 indicates in what ways the people are exposed and maltreated – demonic possession, death, chronic disease, natural disasters, religious leaders whose spiritual care lacks the essential quality of divine mercy. Matthew adds a qualifying simile – “like sheep not having a shepherd” (9:36). Without good shepherds their destruction is assured; it is just a matter of time. As Jesus tells his apostles in 10:6, these people are “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (cf. Jeremiah 50:6 (Septuagint 27:6)), because their leaders have failed in their responsibility for them. The oracle that Ezekiel proclaims in chapter 34:1-10 describes Israel as sheep ravaged and abandoned because their ‘shepherds’ have failed in their responsibility. Presumably Matthew is indicating that Israel in his day is in a similar condition – harassed and exposed to all sorts of spiritual dangers because their religious leaders have failed in their responsibility.
In interpreting Matthew’s description of Israel, we must remember that he is defining God’s people in their spiritual condition prior to the cross. Jesus comes precisely to rectify this disturbing and deadly situation. One of the primary messages for us today would be the importance of good spiritual leadership for God’s people. In its absence God’s people become vulnerable to significant dangers. At this point Jesus focuses upon the malevolent results for the people when spiritual leaders are derelict in their roles. He does not detail exactly how the religious leaders have acted inappropriately. That comes later (Matthew 23).
God has compassion for His people and gives them spiritual leaders to care for and assist them. When such leaders abuse or neglect their roles God’s people suffer, sometimes in extreme ways. God’s desires His people to experience ‘green pastures’.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:
- if you are providing spiritual leadership today, consider your attitude towards the people you serve. Are you truly a ‘good shepherd’?
- if God desires His people to flourish and provides spiritual leaders as gifts to His people for this purpose, what are you doing today as a spiritual leader to nurture God’s people?
- Consider the spiritual dangers that God’s people face and how your church community provides a place of spiritual safety and nurture.