Matthew 9:35–10:8 (NRSV)
The Harvest Is Great, the Laborers Few
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for 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 laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The Twelve Apostles
(Mk 3:13–19a; Lk 6:12–16)
10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
The Mission of the Twelve
(Mk 6:6b—13; Lk 9:1–6)
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
There is something exciting about the life that Jesus lived. Every time I read through the gospels and imagine myself walking with the disciple, I am pulled just a bit deeper into this journey of faith. I imagine the scenes that Jesus is involved. I imagine the disciples and the possible discussions that they would have among themselves before Jesus sets them straight. I envision the amazement of the disciples at the healing of each person, the shock of each interaction with the religious leaders, and the confusion they might feel when Jesus says something they do not quite understand.
Imagine if you will that you are walking with Jesus, following him around the countryside, listening to the teachings, helping people to Jesus as he heals various people for various diseases. Some of which have illnesses that could potentially affect your ability to interact with your countrymen. Just to do a quick review of the chapters proceeding today’s reading we would find Jesus’ sermon on the mount. I mention this because it is only after this sermon, according to Matthew, that Jesus’ begins the healing ministries that we enjoy. Then after the sermon Jesus begins to heal, first a leper, then a centurion’s servant, then he goes to the house of Peter and heals Peter’s mother-in-law and others in the house. He teaches some more, and then takes a trip across the sea, where they encounter a terrible storm while Jesus sleeps. When they wake him up and he calms the storm, Jesus heals the demon possessed man by casting the demons into a herd of pigs, they are driven out of that place, and Jesus then heals a man who is paralyzed. Jesus is busy. But up to this point the writer of this gospel did not claim to be among the disciples, it was only after all this that Matthew was called from his tax station to follow Jesus.
So, all this happened, some of the most momentous events in the ministry of Jesus and according to Matthew, Jesus had yet had the full band of disciples. I want this to sink in for a moment. Lepers being cleansed does not just happen every day, Jesus did it, people were amazed, yet continued to live life as they did prior. People were healed of every type of illness, people were amazed, yet continued to live life as normal. Jesus calmed a storm that was so great that seasoned sailors feared for their lives, yet many did not yet follow Jesus. He taught the most profound sermon ever uttered by human lips and heard by human ears, and people nodded their heads in approval yet walked home just as they did before. After all this time, Jesus did not even have a significant core group of disciples, in fact according to Matthew, to this point Jesus’ only disciples were Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
But something happened when Jesus healed the paralyzed man that changed things. You can read that story at the beginning of Matthew 9. The crowd brings the man to Jesus and Jesus says to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders get excited because it is blasphemy to claim to forgive sins, yet that is what Jesus claimed. Then he goes on to say, “what is easier to say, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘stand up and walk?’” Jesus healed that man, and because of it he claimed that he had power over the physical and spiritual bodies. It was this healing that changed things for a tax collector named Matthew. It was shortly after this interaction that Jesus walks up to Matthew’s booth and offers Matthew the opportunity of a life time, the opportunity to study under the only rabbi that can claim to forgive sins. And for a man as hated as a tax collector this is huge, he can be forgiven. He can be forgiven, be redeemed to God, without having to endure the public shaming within the temple courts. He can be forgiven, and accepted as he is. And this did not please the religious leaders one bit, in fact they started saying that Jesus spent his time with sinners, attempting to discredit the troublesome teacher who was causing their people to question their teachings.
This takes the group of disciples to five: Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. Only five confirmed disciples to this point according to the writings of Matthew. And this is one third of the way through the gospel, and the last third of the gospel deals primarily with the last week of Jesus’ life before the passion, so one might say that Jesus had spent half of his ministry with less than a half a dozen followers. I mention this because I believe there is an intermission of sorts between the closing of the ninth chapter and the beginning of the tenth. I believe that there is a catching of breath so to speak, where Jesus pulls back from the healing activities for a while and engages more with repeating his teachings.
At the end of the ninth chapter Jesus looks out at the crowds of people. He is standing there with Peter, Andrew, James, john, and Matthew and he looks at the crowds and he sighs, “look at all of them, they are hurting, they are taken advantage of, and helpless. They are lost like a bunch of wondering sheep without a shepherd.” Imagine the scene. It isn’t a group of 12, but there are six people including Jesus standing there overlooking the city. So many people hurting, taken advantage of by their own countrymen, and they don’t even know where to turn to get out of this rut they are in. “The Harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the laborers are few.” Look at all those people, just look at them.
Remember who these first five disciples are. Peter, Andrew, James and John are all hardworking fishermen. They made their living by going out each night, throwing nets out into the waters to bring in as many fish as they could. They would then come back to the shore and attempt to sell or trade as much as they could so that they could obtain the food that their family would need to eat that day, and hopefully a few other necessities and luxuries along the way. Every night the same, go out catch fish, bring them in to sell and trade, mind the nets, go home eat a meal, take a nap, and do it again the next day. These men were not rich men. They lived like most food producing individuals, they could survive but that is about it. They were common people. They were like many of us, not broke but one hardship away from total collapse.
Then there is Matthew. He unlike the rest is not living paycheck to paycheck, he has investments and disposable income. He can throw parties for his friends and enjoy life. He is comfortable in one aspect of life but miserable in another. Both groups are teetering. They are both walking a fine line. And Jesus called them to a different life. And they took hold of the hope he had to offer.
They are all standing there with their teacher looking out over the city, and Jesus tells them to look at the people. He is saying look at them, they are just like you were, hopeless, scared, struggling. Look at all of them. They are all over, you know them do you. You know where they live what they do. You know how they feel and what they are afraid of. Look at all those people who God loves and wants to redeem just as He did you. Look at them there are so many the harvest is plentiful, but guys there is only six of us. We need to pray.
Can you feel the excitement and anxiety of the situation? Can you sense the urgency that they might have been feeling? Here they are looking out over their hometown and Jesus is telling them look at your friends and your family, your neighbors, and that kid down the street that pesters you with all the questions. Look at them all. They are lost and caught within a system of life that has them caught beneath dominating forces. They are sick and that has them anxious. They are broke and do not know what they are going to feed their kids each night. They fear a collection call, or a revolt. The system is about to collapse and they have nowhere to turn. Pray. Pray that other will come and join us, pray that others will join with us to minister to these hurting and broken people. Pray that God will provide not only the harvest but those that will be suited to help bring them in.
The six of them walk into the city. They return to their usual routine catching fish, collecting taxes, bartering for bread, and throwing parties. They go back into their life as much as they can but there is this urgency in their minds that will not let go. They pray to God that others will join their group, and experience the redemptive hope that they have experienced in this life walking with Jesus. As they pray and live their lives they talk with their friends. They talk to Thomas, Phillip, Bartholomew, Judas, Simon, James, and Thaddaeus. They talk about their experiences, their hopes, the teachings, and they invite them to come and see. They talk to everyone in that town they interact with some respond and others just go about their usual routine. They talk and they pray, they live their life and they continue to follow Jesus every day. Eventually their group grows from five to twelve. And Jesus’ ministry takes on a different form, Jesus sends the twelve out into the surrounding communities. They pair up and they walk each direction, with the assurance that everything they had seen and heard Jesus could do they could do as well. They go out to tell other about the hope they have, and they go out providing whatever services they can to show the people that God does care.
We live in a time very like that of our ancient brothers. We live in a world filled with uncertainty, a world that at any moment could veer off in a direction that could leave each of us devastated. But we are not citizens of this world but citizens of the Kingdom of God. Though there is uncertainty all around, we still have hope. We have hope because of Jesus. We know that no matter what happens God remains. When we do not understand we can rest in our faith, we can rest in the assurance that God will work things out for the good of those who love him and are called to his purposes. We may not understand but we can live in the faith that it is true, because we have seen it in our past as well as in the lives of the multitude of saints that have proceeded us through the courses of life. I want us to look down at our own city and community and listen to the words Jesus spoke to those few disciples. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Repeat those words to yourself as we enter this time of open worship. Repeat them and reflect on it. Five disciples heard that statement according to Matthew, five that we know of because the rest are not mentioned till after this statement was spoken. Repeat those words, reflect on them, and pray. Consider everything that has happened in the past where you have come from and what you have experienced. Consider the hope that you have for the future and from where that hope comes. Repeat those words, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” They were few, yet they shook the foundations of the world. They were few but their witness has span the courses of time. Consider those words, take hold of them and pray. Pray about the hurting, the broken, the oppressed and the hopeless. Pray that people will come to bring relief and hope, and pray that we can be there too.