Then he said to 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)
Harassed and Helpless
Anyone practicing or raised in evangelical Christianity knows this text by heart. He/she hears it and immediately—almost reflexively—associates it with a call to ministry. And that it is. But Jesus says it as a direct result of an observation that troubles Him more so than as a strategic appeal to recruit workers. Here it is in its fuller context (Matthew 9.35-38):
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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to 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.”
What moves Him is what He sees at present, not what He envisions for the future. Everywhere He looks there are harassed and helpless people. They’re incapable of defending themselves. They have no sense of direction. They follow whatever passes their way and fall into trouble without intention.
Matthew muddles the passage somewhat by introducing a herd metaphor just prior to quoting Christ’s description of what He sees as a field of ripe grain. Yet the juxtaposition also adds urgency to what Jesus says. An untended crop will go to seed and survive by reproducing itself the following year. Untended sheep, on the other hand, will dumbly lead themselves into oblivion. They’ll get lost, wander aimlessly away from healthy pasture, and fall to sickness and predators. Isaiah 53.6 says, “We all, 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.” The compassion Jesus feels for the strays He finds everywhere comes out of His sensitivity to the sin and ignorance steering them in unhealthy directions. He feels the weight of iniquity they don’t even realize they carry.
If we take another step back and look at Christ’s call for harvesters in even wider context, we find something particularly enlightening. Matthew places it at the end of a chapter laced with religious controversy. First, Jesus draws fire when He ministers to a paralytic by first telling him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (v2) This gets the legalists in a twist. Who does He think He is to forgive sins? (Well, He knows Who He is.) So Jesus asks, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (v5) To prove His authority to forgive, Jesus uses His power to heal. The lame man walks away and His critics slink back into the shadows.
They don’t stay gone for long. When Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow Him, the Pharisees corner His disciples in verse 11: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” referring to social and religious outcasts. Jesus steps in. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” He says, “but the sick.” (v12) Next, He bumps heads with disciples of John the Baptist. They’re irritated that they and other Jews fast, while His followers don’t. Jesus talks about patching old clothes with new fabric and storing new wine in old skins to explain what He’s doing doesn’t fit the legalist paradigm. Finally, in quick order, He breaks all kinds of taboos. He heals a hemorrhaging woman, a comatose girl, and two blind men—all of them “unclean” and all of them healed by His touch. He rounds things off by loosening the tongue of a mute allegedly possessed by a foul spirit. From first to last, Christ’s unorthodox approaches baffle crowds who’ve been taught those Jesus helps are beyond help. In verse 33, they say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”
Our Field of Service
In perspective with all that precedes it, when Christ mentions the plentiful harvest, we see something quite the opposite of amber waves of grain billowing in the wind. Our field of service reaches beyond presumably healthy stalks standing in orderly formation. It spills over to stunted lives overshadowed by fear and prejudice, knotted people growing inward due to shame and powerlessness, malnourished souls weakened by cruelty and self-abuse, and tender shoots trampled by peer pressure and conformity. Before they can be harvested, they need our care—our light to reactivate their growth, our caress to turn their focus away from themselves toward God, our nurture to restore their strength, and our protection to withstand the stampede of the crowd.
People we first need to save in order to “save” surround us. Christianity isn’t a numbers game based on collecting more points for our side by halftime. It’s an organic process that demands extraordinary, unorthodox approaches that tenderly assess every person we meet on a case-by-case basis. We forgive in order to heal. We find the sick and wounded, rather than build a practice in hopes they’ll find us. We ignore paradigms to infuse new life into old doctrines. We touch untouchables and enable the tormented to speak freely. Will traditionalists challenge us? Of course—that’s what they do. Will we be criticized for hanging with the wrong crowd? If not, we’re doing something wrong. Will other believers who don’t understand confront us? We can expect that. But if we truly want to answer Christ’s call to harvest, we can’t permit third-party observers to hinder our commitment. What He asks us to do is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
Our field of service goes beyond the amber waves to reach the ignored and abused that first must be saved in order to be harvested.
(Tomorrow: Speak to Me)