Our final story from Matthew 9 is probably the most famous in the chapter, but also the one most misunderstood in terms of what Jesus was referring to by “sending out workers into the harvest field”. It’s often used in the context of global mission. And while it indeed has great application for global mission, that’s not what’s going on at this point in Jesus’ ministry. (Remember, the Great Commission is at the end of Matthew’s Gospel!)
It begins with a summary of what Jesus was doing:9:35 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.
Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing diseases. In other words, bringing the kingdom by word (see the Sermon on the Mount) and deed (what we’ve seen throughout Matthew 8 & 9). This is effectively a summary of the content of these two chapters.
And to whom is he bringing the message and signs of the kingdom? Israel. He’s going to all the towns and villages in Israel’s territory – that’s why they have synagogues – to proclaim the coming return from exile we spoke of last week. He’s offering Israel the first chance to hear the news that the 700-year-old prophecies of Isaiah were being fulfilled!
We see this also in what follows. After Jesus says to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field, the next verse (obscured by the chapter break), says this:10:1, 5-8 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness… (5) These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
This is the mission to Israel, which must happen before the gospel can go out to the nations. Would God’s people respond to the announcement that what they’d been waiting for was about to happen? Jesus saw fertile fields:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
If this many people turned out to see Jesus and seek his healing power, there was clearly an expectation, a longing in the community. It may not have shown up among the Jewish leadership, but the average person was “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” as Jesus put it in the Beatitudes a few chapters back.
Just like God had for his people time and time again in the Old Testament, Jesus had compassion on the crowds. He saw the need. But they didn’t have the leadership (shepherding) to guide them. The leadership – those who should be Israel’s shepherds – had failed to do their job. And there’s only one Jesus – he can’t be everywhere at once. (We’re still pre-Pentecost.)9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”
What is the solution to Israel’s lack of good shepherds?9:38 “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
And this prayer is answered in the next chapter, where he sends out the Twelve to continue his own work of proclaiming the kingdom in word and deed.
Despite the context, this does apply (not directly, but by extension) to global mission. We see a pattern for missionary endeavour.
1. Jesus proclaimed the gospel to Israel by word and deed. Not just by one or the other. Not just a cognitive gospel which sounds like a legal offer of contract. Not just a social gospel which doesn’t deal with the fundamentals of sin. But the whole gospel. Do we?
2. Jesus did mission out of compassion for the lost sheep of Israel, not out of a sense of duty. He understood that all people matter to God. (What if we don’t feel that compassion or love for “the lost”? Our love for God should be sufficient to begin. And as we seek the heart of God, he will give us a heart for those who don’t yet know him.)
3. Jesus saw God’s mission to Israel being done through human agents. God has decreed that the harvest will be gathered by workers. Do you want to be one of the harvesters?
4. Jesus saw prayer as the ultimate power behind his mission. He didn’t say “the workers are few, so go…”. He said, “the workers are few, so ask.” We often spend more time wondering how we are to go, how we raise funds, what strategies we’ll use when we get there – when God’s got that under control. Prayer is what drives mission, not funding or new missional paradigms or gifted evangelists. He is Lord of the harvest.
To think about
Do you proclaim the gospel in word and deed?
Do you need to pray that God will give you a greater heart for those who don’t know him – whether they be your family, your neighbours, or people you may never meet?
Do you need to ask God if he is calling you to go? (Acknowledging, of course, that we all do mission even if we stay.)
Do you need to commit to regular prayer for those whom God has called?
Over the last 50 years the kitchen fridge has become symbolic not just of cold food, but of ‘reminders’. I think if God were giving the Old Covenant today he wouldn’t bother any of that tie-it-to-your-foreheads business: he’d say ‘write my laws on fridge magnets, and place them in your kitchens’.
Who’s on your fridge? How many pictures do you have of workers God has sent out into the harvest, to remind you to think of them and pray for them? I find it an advantage to have an old, shabby-looking fridge – we’re always after new missionary postcards to cover up the stains. And every time you go to the fridge, you can offer a quick prayer for someone.
Of course, that’s just one way of disciplining ourselves to pray for those whom God has sent out from among us. Do whatever works for you. But if you have committed yourself to praying for someone, follow through on it. Someone once estimated that the most common Christian lie was ‘I’ll pray for you’.