Commentary on Matthew 9:35—10:8 [9-23]
Matthew 9:35-38 provides a succinct summary of Jesus’ ministry to this point and paves the way for the commissioning of the twelve and the missionary discourse that follows in Chapter 10. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them for they were “harassed and helpless”. This imagery out of Ezekiel 34 suggests exploitation at the hands of the leadership. After considering the condition of the people, Jesus says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). The almost continuous presence of the crowd when he teaches and heals means that the harvest is ready. Consequently, Jesus admonishes his disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest to meet this great need by sending out workers into his harvest field. Jesus does not ask them to pray for more shepherds but more workers. The disciples will carry on Jesus’ mission to these sheep.1
Although Matthew elsewhere uses the harvest as a metaphor for the last judgment, here it refers to missionary outreach. Up to this point, Jesus has been the sole missionary, but in chapter 10 he will commission his disciples to become his partners in the work of preaching the gospel, teaching, and healing. Matthew is also sending a signal to his readers: they too are challenged to pray that the work delegated by Jesus to his followers may involve more and more of those who acknowledge him as Lord.2 The needs are great and the workers are few. Thus, no time for the unprepared, trying to get the unready to do the unnecessary. All hands are needed for the missional tasks so essential to the work of the Savior. We are not simply to pray for more workers, but we are to pray for the right kind of workers. They must be people sent by God, not people who are self-appointed, because the harvest is God’s harvest, and God is its Lord.3
Too many in our day are inclined to act as if they believe the reverse of this statement from Jesus, in other words, that the workers are plentiful but the harvests are few. Why do we find the pronouncement of a plentiful harvest so difficult to believe? Maybe it is the harvest imagery that we find so difficult to grasp, considering that so many of us now live in cities and suburbs as opposed to rural America. Maybe a new metaphor is in order to bring home the truth of what Jesus is attempting to convey. Maybe a sports metaphor: This game is winnable, but the really good players are few. Therefore, ask the coach to send more good players onto the field. Maybe we need a metaphor out of the familiarity of present-day urgencies. This burning house is salvageable, but the able firefighters are few, therefore ask the captain of the fire station to send more firefighters into the burning rubble.
Maybe it is not the datedness of the harvest metaphor, but rather the imagery that it conjures up that continues to give us pause. Some say the harvest is a frequent symbol for eschatological judgment. Usually when harvest imagery appears in scripture, it is a reference to that time when God and God’s angels shall gather the elect at the end of the age, when time that has been shall be no more. Such imagery does little to inspire more participants in the work. In this particular passage I do not believe that the harvest imagery refers to eschatological judgment. The passage is clearly missional in its intent.4 This is not to dismiss judgment completely from this text, for there is a sense in which the merciful shepherd and the Lord of judgment stand in juxtaposition throughout the whole of Matthew’s gospel.
Even if one accepts the missional intent, the sending forth must be received and heard in faith. The God who called you is now ready to send you forth, for the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. In truth, the sending forth that really matters can only come from God. Help wanted? Yes! Now hiring? Yes! But God wants there to be no doubt about the origin of the employment. God is the Lord of the harvest. Not only its owner, but the one who controls its entire management. God has put the harvest and its ingathering into the hands of Jesus. It is his great mission to bring in the harvest and we are to work under his direction and at his command. There is plenty of work to do and not a whole lot of people to do it. The time is ripe for the ingathering of souls into the kingdom. It is ripe for those who are receptive to God’s inbreaking activity. It is ripe for the harvesting of all of those in whom the work of God’s grace succeeds.
The needs are great. The workers are few. The world cries out for those who are willing and prepared to share the good news of the gospel; the good news that this is God’s world, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, one day it will conform to God’s will and to God’s way. We are partners with God and our most ardent prayers ought to be for more workers to join us in this great calling.
1. Snow, R, and Ermakov, A. Matthew: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition: New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2019) 153
2. Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 109
3. Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of Matthew: The King and His Kingdom, Matthew 1-17. (Baker Books, 2006) 165
4. Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993) 109
June 18, 2023