As Jesus moved throughout Galilee teaching and healing the people, He was moved by their pitiful condition. Verse 36 of Matthew 9 says that He had compassion for them, because they were like shepherdless sheep, uncared for and completely helpless. “They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v.36).

The image of shepherdless sheep has strong Old Testament roots and is fully developed in the New Testament. Numbers 27.17 tells how Moses, who was once a shepherd himself, prayed for a successor (who turned out to be Joshua) so that the people would “not be like sheep without a shepherd.” In 1 Kings 22:17, Micaiah predicted the death of King Ahab at Ramoth Gilead, saying, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” (II Chronicles 18.16). Ezekiel wrote an entire chapter against the false shepherds of Israel because they “only take care of themselves” (Ez.34.2) and “do not take care of the flock” (v.3), as a result of which the sheep “were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (v.6). It would be beneficial to read verses 1-31.

Most extensive of all are the later chapters of Zechariah in which He denounced the wicked shepherds of Israel (Zechariah 10.2-3; 11.4-17; 13.7-9) and even predicted the killing of the Good Shepherd who would come (Zechariah 13.7). On the last night before His arrest, Jesus applied Zechariah’s prophecy to Himself, telling His distressed disciples, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’ ” (Matthew 26.31, quoting Zechariah 13.7).

The interesting thing about these Old Testament passages is that in nearly every case the image is negative. The shepherds are false, selfish, or negligent, and the sheep are neglected. In the New Testament and the words of Jesus, however, we find the positive side of the image. In His parable of the lost sheep, Jesus compared the Father to a shepherd who searches until the lost sheep is found, even though ninety-nine are already safe (Matthew 18.10–14).

Best known of all are Jesus’ words about himself in John 10. After an exposure of men who pretended to be shepherds but were not and a description of the true nature of the sheep, Jesus reveals Himself as the shepherd whom the sheep will follow: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” ( vv.11-16)

In Jesus’ day, as in many subsequent periods of Church History, the religious leaders were burdening the people with legalistic niceties instead of seeking them out and wooing them with the Gospel of God’s grace. They were encumbering the people with laws about the Sabbath, fasts, clothing, and tithes. They looked down on them too! The Pharisees regarded the common people as hardly worthy of their attention, even as chaff to be destroyed. They called them the ‘am ha’arets (the “people of the land”). By contrast, Jesus saw them as helpless sheep and a harvest to be gathered in.

Jesus asked for prayer.Jesus had been going about among the common people, preaching the Gospel and healing their diseases. He was moved with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless. He was aware of the volume of work to be done, the great harvest to be reaped. But there was a problem: The harvest was indeed great, but there were few workers. Therefore, in the third great statement of these verses, Jesus tells His disciples what they are to do about it. They are to pray. “The harvest is plentiful,” He said, “but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9.37–38).

That is a command for us also, of course, a command to pray for missionaries and other vocational Christian workers. A command to be laboring where God has put us. We need to take it seriously and obey it. Yet it is not just numbers that matter. If we look closely at this verse, we will see that it is also important that workers are the right kind. They must be people sent by God, not people who are self-appointed, because the harvest is God’s harvest, and God is its Lord.

We need workers who have been sent into the harvest fields by God. If God does not send them, they may respond to some missionary appeal and go out, but when the heat of the day comes and the work becomes difficult, they will abandon the harvest and go home just as the false shepherds abandon the flock when wolves or other dangers threaten. Indeed, one way we can know the workers who are sent by God is that they do not abandon the harvest or shrink from battle when the fighting gets fierce. May God give us that kind of leader, especially in our day, when the battle lines are poorly drawn and people want peace more than truth and popularity more than the approval of Jesus Christ.