35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Matthew 9:35-38
Jesus’ statement to his disciples in the above passage that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few brings to mind at least three questions:
1. Where is the harvest?
2. What is the harvest?
3. Who are the laborers?
Question 1: Where is the harvest?
If we are to use Jesus’ example in this passage to define the location of the harvest, we must include first of all, towns and villages, along with their synagogues in which Jesus taught both religious leaders and the ordinary people in attendance (v 35). Second, we should conclude that there is a harvest wherever Jesus saw crowds of needy people (v 36). Third, the harvest field might be described as being ‘out there’, since Jesus spoke of ‘sending’ laborers into the harvest field. In other words the ‘harvest’ is wherever there are people.
Question 2: What is the harvest?
On a macro level, the harvest is defined as a ‘field’. It’s interesting to note that in the passage, the terms harvest and field are singular. Perhaps Jesus was referring to God’s called out remnant people as a single entity, what we might call the universal invisible church. If so, it’s a really BIG field!
On the micro level, we can say that it’s a ‘people’ field, in the same way we might be driving through Illinois and see miles and miles of corn fields. The harvest Jesus spoke of is made up of people – people who are ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ Where there is no shepherd to protect and care for the sheep, they are harassed by the wolves and are often become lunchmeat, as it were. In spiritual terms, everyone living apart from Christ (the good Shepherd) is being constantly ‘harassed’ by sin and ‘helpless’ to do anything about it. The difference between sheep and wolves on one hand, and people and sin on the other is that sheep are afraid of angry wolves and people apart from Christ love their sin.
Question 3: Who are the laborers?
Our passage from Matthew ends with Jesus telling his disciples to ‘ask the Lord of the harvest (God) to send laborers (field hands) into his (God’s) harvest field. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that he would be sending them (which he did), he told them to pray that more laborers be sent! It seems to be a given that field hands be sent by God. Jesus didn’t say ‘pray for more workers’, he said ask the Lord to send more.
Then there is a matter of the qualification(s) required for working in God’s harvest field. Well, since the job defines the qualifications, and in our passage we have Jesus proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (the gospel), might we say that God’s laborers are those who know his gospel? And since Jesus looked upon the crowds with deep compassion should compassion for the lost be the mark of the most effective worker?
Now that we have described the laborer in the harvest as a compassionate proclaimer of the gospel, we need to ask if qualified ‘field hands’ are limited to those who are specially gifted preachers, teachers, evangelists, etc.? We say no, and here’s why. There are at least two groups of people in the New Testament who provide us examples. The first group is includes those who personally encountered Jesus and then told others. The woman at the well, the man born blind, and the women who went to Jesus’ tomb come immediately to mind. There are many more.
The second group would be those who, after Jesus’ resurrection, and beginning at Pentecost, heard the gospel and believed – several thousand in Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost followed by many, many more, in Judea, Samaria, and parts beyond. Read the book of Acts for an account of how and where the gospel was proclaimed, carried by gifted and empowered preachers, teachers and evangelists, but also shared by ordinary folks; Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, soldiers and civilians, male and female, who had heard and believed the gospel.
My Christian brothers and sisters, the ordinary folks are US!
One last question: Are you a field hand, or just a consumer?