July 14, 1996

SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36

For fans of the Chicago Bulls, Dennis Rodman was once the rottenest basketball player alive. His nasty attitude and dirty tricks in the years he played against the Bulls had made him Public Enemy Number One to Chicagoans. But then Dennis joined the Bulls, and suddenly Bulls’ fans loved him. His dirty tricks weren’t dirty anymore; they were part of his all-out style of play. His violent temper, his foul language, his crude sexual behavior–these things weren’t vile anymore; they were just part of the show. By joining the Bulls, Rotten Rodman became Darling Dennis for Bulls’ fans.

As the NBA playoffs began and Bulls hysteria reached its peak, Dennis cashed in by releasing a book. He called his book Bad As I Wanna Be. It’s hardly a classic, of course. Dennis is a rebounder, not a writer. He writes about as badly as he shoots free throws. But let’s give the book its due. It’s may not be a masterpiece of philosophy, but still, the title pretty well summarizes the philosophy of our most prestigious universities.

“Bad as I wanna be”–according to the dominant view in higher education, there’s no universal truth for me to discover or believe, and no universal authority with the right to impose morality on me. This approach is often called postmodernism. Postmodernism–that’s an impressive sounding word, isn’t it? It sounds a lot more scholarly and sophisticated than “bad as I wanna be.” But it amounts to the same thing.

According to postmodernism, every belief is a human construct. No belief ever corresponds to a universal, objective reality; it only expresses a personal preference or a group preference. This means that it’s impossible to say that any particular belief is either true or false; it’s all relative. It’s impossible to say that any particular behavior is good or bad; it’s all relative. Belief and behavior vary with your own personal tastes or with the crowd you hang out with.

Once you buy into that philosophy, it’s impossible to say that anything in Dennis Rodman’s personal life is wrong. What’s right or wrong for Dennis all depends on what Dennis wants. If he mistreated his former wife, neglected their child, shacked up with Madonna, slept around with countless others, and put down people of another race, so what? It’s what Rodman chose. He thinks it’s good to be bad, so who’s to argue?

Likewise, you can’t judge Dennis’s behavior as a player by any objective rules or standards. It’s all a matter of group identification. The behavior that made him a villain to Bulls’ fans when he played against the Bulls–that very same behavior made him a hero when he played for them. If Dennis slams an opponent to the floor, the opponent doesn’t like it, of course, but that just meant the opponent is looking at it from the perspective of himself and his own group. It doesn’t mean Rodman’s behavior is wrong. He’s just doing whatever it takes to express himself and help his team and please his fans–he’s being true to himself and to his social grouping. If Dennis head butts a referee, the referee doesn’t like it, and the league can punish him for it. But that just means the ref and the league don’t like Dennis, and they’re using their power to impose their standards on him. It doesn’t mean Dennis has violated any objective standard of decent behavior.

Some parents worry about the impact it will have on their children to see Dennis Rodman as a hero. They wish he wasn’t glorified in the media. They wish he wasn’t given so much publicity by sponsors such as Mcdonald’s and Pizza Hut. Maybe these parents aren’t too eager to see their sons in rainbow-colored hair or covered with tattoos or piercing their bodies or painting their nails or wearing eyeshadow, or maybe they’ve got an even deeper concern about the vulgarity and violence and promiscuity that Rodman promotes.

But even as some parents worry about the influence of Rodman and other unruly athletes, where are they sending their children? To schools and universities that offer the very same mindset. Whatever fancy title the teachers use for it, whether they call it postmodernism or deconstructionism or multiculturalism or values clarification, it could just as well be titled Bad As I Wanna Be. Oh, the schools won’t teach head butting or wife beating, but they will send the message that there’s no superior Being to whom I must answer; no objective reality that exists whether or not I believe in it; no will superior to my own will; no standard for belief or behavior except for the standard of my own preferences or the standard of the group I associate with.

Once students get that message, Bad As I Wanna Be is the logical outcome. Dennis Rodman’s antics aren’t as unusual as they might appear; they’re a show-and-tell course in postmodernism. Who knows? Maybe Harvard or Yale or Duke will give Dennis an honorary doctorate for his efforts.

Now, postmodernism is really nothing new, of course, in spite of its up-to-date sounding name. The word “postmodern” sounds like something more modern than modern, newer than new, but the basic approach is very old. Already more than 3,000 years ago a writer in the Bible spoke of times in the life of the Israelites when there was no ruling authority and “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Already 2,700 years ago, the biblical prophet Isaiah said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). So, then, the approach of “do my own thing,” “believe what works for me,” “Bad As I Wanna Be“–it’s all very old. The so-called postmodern approach is really prehistoric.

At this point, I suppose, I could go on with an attack on athletes and media and higher education and the crowds of people who are wandering about in postmodernism. Such an attack might be justified, and I guess I’ve already done a certain amount of attacking. But what if the greatest need of postmodern people isn’t an attack but an alternative? When sheep have gone astray and each has turned to his own way, they don’t just need a scolding. They need a shepherd.

When Jesus walked this earth, he met up with great crowds of people who had many confused ideas and did many bad things. And how did he react? The Bible says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus saw not just their sin but their misery. He didn’t just see their perversion; he felt their pain. The Bible doesn’t say “he had contempt for them, because they were hideous and horrible.” It says “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless.”

I’ll be honest. I admire Dennis Rodman’s enormous energy and his all-out effort, and I also get upset about his bad and bizarre behavior and his impact on his young fans. But even as I get upset, I also pity him. How can I not pity a man who defaces his body and degrades his soul? How can I not pity a man who can’t decide whether to put makeup on his own face or headbutt someone else’s face? How can I not pity a man who doesn’t know whether he’s male or female? How can I not pity a man who doesn’t really know who he is? How can I not pity a man who doesn’t know whether he wants to live or die? Dennis called his book Bad As I Wanna Be, but a better title might be Sad as I Have to Be.

In fact, that would describe a great many people–including some of you listening to me right now. You’re not as famous as Dennis Rodman but you’re just as confused. You’re like sheep gone astray. Sheep following their own way aren’t happy, at least not for long. They’re lost, harassed, helpless, hopeless. You can pretend that it’s fun and exciting to cross every boundary and be as bad as you want to be, but the badness of your behavior can’t hide the sadness of your soul.

Jesus knows all this, and he is filled with compassion. When he sees crowds of confused, harassed, helpless people, he has pity for them, and at the same time he sees the potential for something great to happen. He doesn’t just curse the sheep and grumble about their problems. He loves the sheep and sets out to do something about their predicament. He wants these poor sheep without a shepherd to enjoy the peace and security that only he, the Good Shepherd, can provide.

Can you honestly say, “The Lord is my Shepherd?” Or do you feel like a sheep without a shepherd? David Feddes here again, and we’re focusing on Jesus’ love and compassion for sheep without a shepherd.

The Bible gives a summary of Jesus in action in Matthew 9:35 when it says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” To confused people, Jesus taught the truth of God. To despairing people, Jesus preached good news of God’s kingdom and rule. To hurting people, Jesus brought help and healing.

That’s how the Bible summarizes Jesus in action, and then,

in the very next verse, in Matthew 9:36, the Bible shows the attitude of Jesus that lay behind his actions. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus was often saddened by their foolishness and grieved by their sins, but he never despised them or treated them with contempt. Instead, he sympathized with their sorrow, and he understood their deepest problem. Of all the problems that these poor sheep had, their biggest problem was simply that they didn’t have a shepherd. They needed someone to reach out to them and rescue them and guide them and guard them and help them and heal them.

This need was especially great because there had been such a terrible lack of leadership, such a shortage of shepherding. The religious authorities of that time claimed to be champions of morality and right living, but the religion they offered could only lay greater burdens on people. Ordinary working people didn’t have the time to learn all the nitpicky rituals and regulations of the religious elite; and they didn’t have the energy to put all their effort into the squabbles that preoccupied their leaders. This brand of religion didn’t give people help or hope or new life. It didn’t lift them up. It weighed them down. As Jesus put it, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

Jesus was different. He didn’t just give people orders. He gave them help. He didn’t just offer good advice; he announced good news. He didn’t just give people more burdens; he gave them rest. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

The compassion of Jesus was totally different from the attitude of the religious elite. These leaders didn’t care about common people; they looked down on them and felt contempt for them. Jesus, however, didn’t distance himself from the common people. He cared about the crowds and had compassion on them. Ordinary people on the street sensed that Jesus cared, and they could see from his teaching and preaching and healing that he was determined to help them. The result, says the Bible, was that “the common people heard him gladly.”

The religious elite, on the other hand, stayed aloof from ordinary folks and common sinners, and they also rejected Jesus for the most part. When they saw great crowds flocking to Jesus, it just confirmed for them that common people don’t know anything and that there’s a sucker born every minute. They said, “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law–there is a curse on them” (John 7:47-48). That was their attitude: total contempt. They saw the crowds as an ignorant, accursed rabble, and they offered them nothing but contempt and criticism and condemnation.

That’s a great temptation still today for people who have a bit more education or a bit more religious background than the masses. It’s easy to despise the excesses of a man like Dennis Rodman and to attack the foolishness of people who go around doing their own thing and making fools of themselves and wrecking their lives in the process. It’s easy to gripe that people these days know nothing of God’s law, that they’re living under a curse, and then to congratulate oneself on being among the select few who’ve got it all together when it comes to religion.

But wait a minute! Granted, people are confused and wandering, but what if they’re not the only ones at fault? What if those of us in the church have failed in our calling to shepherd God’s flock? Perhaps we’ve failed to teach people God’s truth; we’ve failed to tell them the good news that they can start over under God’s rule; we’ve failed to provide the tender care and rest and healing that harassed and helpless sheep need so badly; and instead we’ve written them off and congratulated ourselves on our own superior knowledge and behavior.

The Bible has some hard words for harsh, uncaring shepherds.

God says in the book of Ezekiel, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? … You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (34:2-6).

If you’re a churchgoer or you’re in a position of religious leadership, and you wonder why people would wander off and be scattered in every direction by the foolishness and immorality and destructiveness of postmodern life, perhaps you’d better start by looking in the mirror. Sure, sheep always have a tendency to wander, but they’re absolutely sure to wander if their shepherds mistreat them or neglect them. We’d like to blame the media or the athletes or the politicians or the postmodern schools for everything, but what about our own religious institutions? Throughout the history of Israel and of the church, the times of greatest confusion and immorality have been times when religious institutions despised those who didn’t meet their standards and cared more about building their own empires than about teaching God’s truth and preaching good news and helping people in need.

At any rate, after God’s hard words for bad shepherds, he announces good news for his sheep. God says in Ezekiel, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (34:11-16). To sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless, God promised to be their shepherd himself. And he kept his promise by coming to this earth in the person of Jesus.

When Jesus looked at the crowds, he felt deep pity and he also saw great potential. He didn’t see a worthless, contemptible mob. He saw the crowds as harassed and helpless sheep who could be set right again by a good shepherd, and he also saw them as a field that was ripe for harvesting. He saw these confused crowds, not just as a problem, but as a grand opportunity. He told his disciples, “‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field'” (Matthew 9:37-38).

Jesus looks on confused crowds very differently than some religious folks might. Many religious people lament the breakdown of morality and modesty, and they fear the collapse of the culture. But Jesus isn’t so worried about such things. In fact, he’s more concerned when people feel satisfied with themselves and content with their culture.

Jesus looks at people milling around in sin and confusion, and what does he see? He sees vast numbers of people ripe for harvest, ready to be brought into God’s kingdom. Maybe you’re one of these people. You’ve lost interest in trying to maintain conventional morality. You don’t much care about a veneer of politeness. You’re not interested in working like crazy to please any preacher. But does that make you hopeless? No, it means that you’re more ready than ever for something really radical–like an encounter with Jesus himself.

Jesus was confident that people like you, people like so many in our society today, are a rich field that is ripe for God’s harvest. The great need is for workers sent by God, workers who teach as Jesus taught and love as Jesus loved and help as Jesus helped and spread the good news of salvation and help people to encounter Jesus. Then the sheep will know their shepherd. Then the ripe grain will be brought into the barn. I pray that the Lord of the harvest will send many more workers into his harvest field, as he has in the past, and I pray that he will use me as one of those workers.

And I pray, too, that if you are are still wandering like a sheep without a shepherd will, you will even now hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and sense how much Jesus cares for you. Maybe you’ve been thinking like a postmodern who doesn’t believe in any universal truth, but your mind is starving for something real and true. Maybe you’ve been as bad as you wanna be, but your soul longs to be as good as God wants you to be. Maybe you’re harassed and helpless after going it alone for so long, and you’re starting to realize that you need a shepherd.

Well, there is a shepherd, a good shepherd. His name is Jesus, and he has compassion on his sheep. He will go anywhere and do anything to rescue them. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The Bible says, “All we, like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus paid the price of our sin himself by dying in our place on the cross, and he rose again to forever be the great Shepherd of his sheep. So isn’t it time for you to stop wandering and let him bring you home again?

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.