Jesus sees the crowds following him and describes as “sheep without a shepherd” (9:35-36). Matthew uses this saying to introduce the Discipleship Discourse (Matthew 10). The application of this passage is difficult since many churches have used “the harvest is plentiful” as a Missions conference theme but few take the instructions in 10:5-15 seriously as a model for doing Christian mission. In addition, Jesus is quite clear this is a limited mission to the Jewish towns and villages of Galilee. He specifically tells them to avoid Gentiles and go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
In Mark 6:34 has the “sheep without a shepherd” line to introduce the feeding of the 5000. The mission of the twelve is in Mark 6:6b-13, 30. Luke 10:1-2 uses the harvest to introduce the instructions for the mission of the seventy-two. Matthew has relocated this saying as an introduction to a section on preparing the disciples for their mission to Galilee (Matthew 10).
Jesus has compassion on the crowds. The verb (σπλαγχνίζομαι) refers to a strong feeling of pity or sympathy. The word is related to the noun for viscera, the innermost part of a person. One feels their emotions in their stomach, so the verb becomes a metaphor for deeply felt emotions. In the Gospels, the word is only used for Jesus’s compassion on suffering, with the exception of Matthew 18:23-25 (the master’s compassion on the unmerciful servant), Luke 10:33 (the good Samaritan has compassion in the injured men) and Luke 15:20 (the reaction of the father to the prodigal’s return). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s compassion is always directed towards physical need (14:14, a healing; 15:32, food for the 4000; 20:34, a blind man)
Since they are like sheep without a shepherd, the people are “harassed and helpless.” In the context, the phrase is an apt description of a lost sheep. Sheep are not well equipped to care for themselves and those who wander off from the flock becomes prey.
Harassed (σκύλλω) has the sense of troubling or annoying someone (in Luke 8:49, “do not trouble the teacher”). But there is violence implied by the word, it is sometimes used literally for “flay” or “skin” and in the passive voice it can refer to being torn or lacerated (BrillDAG). “Helpless” (perf pass ptcp from ῥιπτέω), literally to be thrown down, the perfect passive participle is used for throwing oneself down on the ground, prostrating oneself. The verb is used for exposing an unwanted infant (BDAG). The verb does not necessary imply violence, although “discarded” captures the thought, the people are tossed aside as if they have no value (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 97).
Who is harassing the people? It is possible this harassment refers to general life under the Romans, the metaphor of a “sheep without a shepherd” makes this an allusion to the leadership of Israel. The harassed and helpless people are like “sheep without a shepherd,” a phrase which evokes the prophetic critique of the leaders of Israel and Judah.
The phrase may be drawn from Numbers 27:17. In that context, Moses realizes that when he dies there will be no one to lead Israel in the wilderness, they will be like sheep scattered in the wilderness without a shepherd. The Lord then appoints Joshua, a man with the spirit of leadership, to succeed Moses.
In Matthew, Jesus (the new Moses) appoints his twelve disciples to continue his mission throughout Galilee. As the chapter develops, this call to discipleship extends beyond the immediate context of Matthew 10 to disciples at the time the Gospel was written.
There are several passages in the Old Testament describing Israel’s leaders as “bad shepherds.” In Ezekiel 34 the shepherds do not take care of their flock and they are scattered as if they have no shepherd (34:5). The solution is to appoint a new, good shepherd who will rescue the sheep from the wild animals who harass them and care for them. Ezekiel is looking forward to an eschatological shepherd-king who will rule of Israel in peace and prosperity (34:25-31). In Micah 3 the leaders of Israel and Judah are like shepherds who butcher their flock and eat them (3:1-3), rather than care for them as they should (3:4-12). Perhaps most significant is Jeremiah 50:6, God’s people are lost sheep because their leaders have led them astray and their enemies have devoured them.
The crowds following Jesus are oppressed and downtrodden because they do not have good shepherds. In Matthew 10 Jesus will send out his chosen twelve disciples on a mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is nothing wrong with the application of this passage made in Missions conferences, we ought to pray to God for him to send workers into the fields ripe for harvest. But in Matthew, that “mission field” is specifically the villages in the region of Galilee.