Sometimes we say of a person that he or she has a big heart. By it, we mean that they can embrace and care about a lot of people at the same time. It is obvious from this description of Jesus that he had a very big heart because his heart embraced the crowds that came to listen to him.
The word that is used to describe the response of Jesus is compassion. There are different ways to see a crowd. Some people are attracted by a crowd, perhaps because it provides security. Others have apprehension of a crowd, perhaps because it might get out of control. Jesus’ response was to feel for them – the word translated as compassion is connected to the inner entrails of a person. He felt an overwhelming sense of love for them. After all, he perfectly loved his neighbour at all times and what else should we expect from him on any occasion but love?
What was it about them that drew his compassion? Matthew tells us that Jesus saw they were living without care. He recognised in them the traits one would see in a flock without a shepherd. They were without direction, without provision, without protection and without restoration if hurt. We know that a sheep without such care will soon die, for one reason or another. Jesus wanted those people to experience the shepherd care of his kingdom.
Who or what was harassing them? We can mention several reasons: one was that they were not depending on God to be their shepherd; a second was that each of them had a predator who was determined to destroy them – the devil; a third was that they were looking for spiritual provision and refreshment in the wrong places; a fourth was that the cause of God seemed weak and religion did not give them much satisfaction.
The description of the people as being harassed and helpless is one that could apply at any period of time. After all, the various features I have just mentioned could apply as much today as it did back then. The fact that this is the case should create sympathy within our hearts for the needy people all around us.
One is meant to ask where the shepherds were at that time. Here we have a description of sheep who have been abandoned by their shepherds. It is not difficult to work out that the Saviour, the true Shepherd, is condemning false shepherds. This is not the only occasion when Jesus did this. The false shepherds were the religious leaders, people like the Pharisees and the priests, who claimed to be serving God, but in fact were not because they way in which they would serve him would be by providing protection and provision for those who needed it.