This is a text full of comfort, if we will but remember one thing: that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; and, therefore, what he did when he was upon earth, he is doing now, and will do till the end of the world. If we will believe this, and look at our Lord's doings upon earth as patterns and specimens, as it were, of his eternal life and character, then every verse in the gospels will teach us something, and be precious to us.
The people came to hear Jesus in a desert place; a wild forest country, among the hills on the east side of the Lake of Gennesaret. 'And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep having no shepherd: and he taught them many things.'
And, what kind of people were these, who so moved our Lord's pity? The text tells us, that they were like sheep. Now, in what way were they like sheep?
A sheep is simple, and harmless, and tractable, and so, I suppose, were these people. They may not have been very clever and shrewd; not good scholars. No doubt they were a poor, wild, ignorant, set of people; but they were tractable; they were willing to come and learn; they felt their own ignorance, and wanted to be taught. They were not proud and self-sufficient, not fierce or bloodthirsty. The text does not say that they were like wild beasts having no keeper: but like sheep having no shepherd. And therefore Christ pitied them, because they were teachable, willing to be taught, and worth teaching; and yet had no one to teach them.
The Scribes and Pharisees, it seems, taught them nothing. They may have taught the people in Jerusalem, and in the great towns, something: but they seem, from all the gospels, to have cared little or nothing for the poor folk out in the wild mountain country. They liked to live in pride and comfort in the towns, with their comfortable congregations round them, admiring them; but they had no fancy to go out into the deserts, to seek and to save those who were lost. They were bad shepherds, greedy shepherds, who were glad enough to shear God's flock, and keep the wool themselves: but they did not care to feed the flock of God. It was too much trouble; and they could get no honour and no money by it. And most likely they did not understand these poor people; could not speak, hardly understand, their country language; for these Galileans spoke a rough dialect, different from that of the upper classes.
So the Scribes and Pharisees looked down on them as a bad, wild, low set of people, with whom nothing could be done; and said, 'This people who knoweth not the law, is accursed.'
But what they would not do, God himself would. God in Christ had come to feed his own flock, and to seek the lost sheep, and bring them gently home to God's fold. He could feel for these poor wild foresters and mountain shepherds; he could understand what was in their hearts; for he knew the heart of man; and, therefore, he could make them understand him. And it was for this very reason, one might suppose, that our Lord was willing to be brought up at Nazareth, that he might learn the country speech, and country ways, and that the people might grow to look on him as one of themselves. Those Scribes and Pharisees, one may suppose, were just the people whom they could not understand; fine, rich scholars, proud people talking very learnedly about deep doctrines. The country folk must have looked at them as if they belonged to some other world, and said, -- Those Pharisees cannot understand us, any more than we can them, with their hard rules about this and that. Easy enough for rich men like them to make rules for poor ones. Indeed our Lord said the very same of them -- 'Binding heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and laying them on men's shoulders; while they themselves would not touch them with one of their fingers.'
Then the Lord himself came and preached to these poor wild folk, and they heard him gladly. And why? Because his speech was too deep for them? Because he scolded and threatened them? No.
We never find that our Lord spoke harshly to them. They had plenty of sins, and he knew it: but it is most remarkable that the Evangelists never tell us what he said about those sins. What they do tell us is, that he spoke to them of the common things around them, of the flowers of the field, the birds of the air, of sowing and reaping, and feeding sheep; and taught them by parables, taken from the common country life which they lived, and the common country things which they saw; and shewed them how the kingdom of God was like unto this and that which they had seen from their childhood, and how earth was a pattern of heaven. And they could understand that. Not all of it perhaps: but still they heard him gladly. His preaching made them understand themselves, and their own souls, and what God felt for them, and what was right and wrong, and what would become of them, as they never felt before. It is plain and certain that the country people could understand Christ's parables, when the Scribes and Pharisees could not. The Scribes and Pharisees, in spite of all their learning, were those who were without (as our Lord said); who had eyes and could not see, and ears and could not hear, for their hearts were grown fat and gross. With all their learning, they were not wise enough to understand the message which God sends in every flower and every sunbeam; the message which Christ preached to the poor, and the poor heard him gladly; the message which he confirmed to them by his miracles. For what were his miracles like? Did he call down lightning to strike sinners dead, or call up earthquakes, to swallow them? No; he went about healing the sick, cleansing the leper, feeding the hungry in the wilderness; that therefore they might see by his example, the glory of their Father in heaven, and understand that God is a God of Love, of mercy, a deliverer, a Saviour, and not, as the Scribes and Pharisees made him out, a hard taskmaster, keeping his anger for ever, and extreme to mark what was done amiss.
Ah that, be sure, was what made the Scribes and Pharisees more mad than anything else against Christ, that he spoke to the poor ignorant people of their Father in heaven. It made them envious enough to see the poor people listening to Christ, when they would not listen to them; but when he told these poor folk, whom they called 'accursed and lost sinners,' that God in heaven was their Father, then no name was too bad for our Lord; and they called him the worst name which they could think of -- a friend of publicans and sinners. That was the worst name, in their eyes: and yet, in reality, it was the highest honour. But they never forgave him. How could they? They felt that if he was doing God's work, they were doing the devil's, that either he or they must be utterly wrong: and they never rested till they crucified him, and stopped him for ever, as they fancied, from telling poor ignorant people laden with sins to consider the flowers of the field how they grow, and learn from them that they have a Father in heaven who knoweth what they have need of before they ask him.
But they did not stop Christ: and, what is more, they will never stop him. He has said it, and it remains true for ever; for he is saying it over and over again, in a thousand ways, to his sheep, when they are wandering without a shepherd.
Only let them be Christ's sheep, and he will have compassion on them, and teach them many things. Many may neglect them: but Christ will not. Whoever you may be, however simple you are, however ignorant, however lonely, still, if you are one of Christ's sheep, if you are harmless and teachable, willing and wishing to learn what is right, then Christ will surely teach you in his good time. There never was a soul on earth, I believe, who really wished for God's light, but what God's light came to it at last, as it will to you, if you be Christ's sheep. If you are proud and conceited, you will learn nothing. If you are fierce and headstrong, you will learn nothing. If you are patient and gentle, you will learn all that you need to know; for Christ will teach you. He has many ways of teaching you. By his ministers; by the Bible; by books; by good friends; by sorrows and troubles; by blessings and comforts; by stirring up your mind to think over the common things which lie all around you in your daily work. But what need for me to go on counting by how many ways Christ will lead you, when he has more ways than man ever dreamed of? Who hath known the mind of the Lord; or who shall be his counsellor? Only be sure that he will teach you, if you wish to learn; and be sure that this is what he will teach you -- to know the glory of his Father and your Father, whose name is Love.