When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
I got stuck in a lift this week.
In the range of experiences of being stuck in a lift, it certainly wasn’t the worst possible situation. I wasn’t alone, but my wife was there with me; we were only stuck for about an hour and a half; people knew we were in there right from the start. I am sure that there are plenty of people who have had much more terrifying experiences of being trapped in elevators than we did.
Having said that, it’s not an experience I would recommend or care to repeat.
There are lots of things about being stuck in a lift that are quite unpleasant. The most obvious issue is the confined space. Allegedly this lift could accommodate up to four people, but it was cramped with just the two of us, and I wouldn’t have liked to share the compartment with one more, let alone two! It was a hot day and there was no air-conditioning, so it was getting rather warm by the time we were released by the emergency services.
I hadn’t been trapped in a lift before, so I expected to be freaked out by the small space over that length of time. But, surprisingly that wasn’t the biggest issue. It certainly wasn’t pleasant, but the thing that I found most difficult was being helpless.
As I mentioned, we knew from the start that others were aware that we were trapped and were working to get us free. Despite that, you feel totally helpless stuck in a metal box with no way to get out. Pushing the buttons didn’t help (and at times could be an active hinderance!) so there was literally nothing I could do to improve our situation. I simply had to wait for help to arrive.
Jesus talks about the people of Israel of his day as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). ‘Harassed’ comes from a root word meaning troubled or torn apart, and ‘helpless’ literally means ‘thrown down’.
‘Harassed and helpless’ is a good way to describe how I felt trapped in that lift, even if it only was for ninety minutes or so. Yet, harassed and helpless describes our state so much of the time when we are not aware of it. We are troubled and in need of help, but unable to help ourselves. Moments like being stuck in a lift are a wake up call to the ways in which we are harassed and helpless in many other ways in life.
Communicating with someone through a lift door is quite difficult; you can’t carry on a long and detailed conversation. But important information can still be shared, most importantly the words “help is on the way.” In this case, what we needed was the fire department to come and crowbar the doors open and set us free. As we are harassed and helpless in life, what we need is the Saviour of the World to come and open up the door of life and set us free. As Jesus saw the people harassed and helpless, he did not just leave that as a factual observation. He came as the Good Shepherd to lead the sheep into the sheepfold and to freedom and safety.