In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds that followed him because they were “harassed and helpless, likes sheep without a shepherd.” (NRSV) A little digging in the Greek and my favorite outdated resource Robertson’s Word Pictures tells us that the plight of the crowd was even worse than that. Other translations render it thusly:
- Their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. – NLT
- They were faint and cast aside – YLT
- They fainted and were scattered abroad – KJV
The Greek word translated at “harassed” or “faint” is ekloo’o which means anything from “being set free” to “troubled” to “despondent and faint hearted.” The crowd was bordering on hopelessness. This is because, as the second word, rhipto, translated as “helpless” or “cast aside” insinuates that someone or something else was acting upon them. They were, as we might say today, feeling like the victims of a divide and conquer technique.
We live in a world of unprecedented connection and unmitigated isolation. Those things that have been created to “bring us together” have in many ways become the place in which we most often tear ourselves apart. Facebook’s unfollow feature allows us to feel like we are connected with hundreds, even thousands of “friends” while actually living in a echo chamber of our own ideologies. Each succeeding social media platform comes into existence so young people can escape being “followed” by their parents and grandparents. In the end, our plight is worse than the crowd that followed Jesus because, we are not only being divided by outside forces, but often it is we ourselves who work to define ourselves against something or someone. At some point, I have to wonder, will we wake up one day and realize that we too are like sheep without a shepherd, faint hearted, helpless, and despondent?
Jesus’ reaction to the crowd in search of hope is to commission his disciples to offer hope, but as we learn from the various Gospel narratives, more often than not, the disciples are the same flock of harassed and helpless sheep to which they are sent. Our calling is no different. Despite our ongoing need for a Savior to show us the Kingdom of God, we are called to help others find their way to Jesus. Sometimes, it will be us showing them the Kingdom. At other times, perhaps they will be the light of hope for us. Ultimately, the cure for the hopelessness of division and faint heartedness is a community of compassion, faith, and love that can remind us, with regularity, that the Kingdom of God is as near as a relationship in Christ.