Laborers For the Harvest (Matthew 9:35-38)


Matthew 9:35-38 is a transitional passage. Jesus began calling his first disciples in Matthew 4 and promised to make them fishers of men. But Matthew 5-9 gives the account of Jesus teaching and healing a variety of people – not his disciples. This is summarized in our first verse today in Matthew 9:35. “And Jesus went through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” We say this passage is transitional because Jesus is now going to commission his apostles to continue the work he started. Before he tells them howto do this work in chapter 10, Matthew 9:35-38 presents why this work is needed. The opportunity to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom comes to us today. But what should our motivation be? What is the situation that deems this work necessary? And what can we really do about the situation of the lost world? A few weeks ago we spoke about how Christ is the physician for sinners. Let’s study how God calls us to labor as well in Matthew 9:35-38.

Motivation: A Compassion For Sheep (9:36)

Matthew tells us that as Jesus felt compassion as he looked out over the crowds. Why? They were “harassed and helpless.” But what does this really mean? Matthew paints a vivid picture with a few simple words. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” This tells us what we need to know. We usually picture a cohesive herd of sheep in peaceful green pastures with a shepherd guarding them. Sheep are completely reliant on their shepherd. Remove the shepherd and this picture drastically changes. Sheep are defenseless and vulnerable to attack without a shepherd. Sheep are also not good foragers on their own. The shepherd normally leads them to green grass and calm waters. Without a shepherd the sheep are scattered, confused, hungry, and vulnerable. They are harassed and helpless.

This is the spiritual picture of the crowds Jesus saw. People are sheep who need a shepherd to lead them to the source of life and protect them from spiritual devastation. Yet Jesus saw an entire nation of hungering and thirsting people. They are alone, wanting, and do not know the way to God. They have been looking to fill their soul’s hunger in all the wrong places. They sought to fill their hunger with sexual immorality and greed, yet they are still empty. All they can do is continue to return to the material world. They have no knowledge or sight. But they hear Christ speak and follow him everywhere because they want more. Considering this picture just causes Christ’s heart to ache. Notice verse 36 again. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…” This gives us a beautiful view into the emotions of our Messiah. Our Messiah looks at sin-plagued people without a shepherd and feels compassion for them. Christ does not look at the crowd with disgust. Compassion is the motivating emotion in Christ.

Christians, is this the way we feel when we look at the world? Does compassion motivate us to spread the gospel? Or does our disgust for sin translate into a disgust for sinners? Or are we unaffected by the sight of sinners altogether? People want to know how to get excited about telling others the gospel. This is the big boulder in the way of desire and motivation to share Christ with others. If we are not excited to share the gospel, the problem is a lack of the correct motivation. There are two popular false motivations. The first false motivation is disgust. A motivation from disgust is a feigned concern because we are filled with contempt. We are superior. Consequently, our attempts to help struggling sinners will fail because of our pride. We will be rejected! The second false motivation is a lack of an emotional response at all. This is sneakier because we can be pleased with our lack of disgust for sinners. But do we really even care for their situation at all?

Both of these attitudes towards sinners expose the problem of not seeing the situation from the right perspective. Yes, people are responsible for their sin. But Jesus saw the crowds as helpless sheep without a shepherd. Adopting this perspective will help us have the correct motivation of compassion. We need to see that many have not had a loving and patient shepherd gently handle their maladies. They need to be introduced to Christ’s love and then to Christ’s ways. Even many who may have been introduced to Christ still need compassionate approaches as well. We must pursue the heart Christ had to be motivated to share the gospel. Don’t harbor disgust and pride. Have compassion for helpless sheep.

Situation: Plentiful Harvest, Few Laborers (37)

As Christ looked at the crowds with compassion, he turned to his disciples and explained the situation. “The harvest is plentiful…” Jesus ministry over the past few chapters proves that the harvest truly is plentiful. He has been planting the seeds of hope in the crowds and they have been following him everywhere. Now the harvest is plentiful. It is time to reap.

This is the good news that is still true today. If we will adopt Jesus’ vision we will see the opportunity. But we often mess this up in our heads. Sometimes we slip into only focusing on where there is not opportunity. We are focusing on those who aren’t listening. Our efforts cannot be focused on these stubborn people who consistently reject God. This causes us to believe the harvest is poor, which is not true. We need to dwell on where there is opportunity. But where is opportunity? Opportunity is not found in crowds of healthy, moral people. Note where Jesus saw opportunity. He saw a plentiful harvest in the crowds of physically and spiritually helpless people. Note how Jesus sees these helpless people as a harvest to be reaped. We can be fooled into thinking of sinners as valueless chaff with no hope. Let’s open our eyes to see the hungering people around us. The harvest is plentiful!

Though the harvest is plentiful, Jesus exposes a problem. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” How sad! Christ did this work of planting a seed, yet he had a lack of laborers to gather. Plentiful harvests are no good when there is a lack of laborers. It is a waste of a good opportunity.

This is the bad news is that this also is still true today.Let’s be honest with ourselves individually. Considering all the souls around us in our community, could we find room for improvement in this area? Would we say that the needs for inviting, encouraging, teaching, shepherding, and evangelizing members are filled up here? I hope we are seeing this right. The laborers are few. Christ was not indicting his disciples in the context because he had not yet sent them out. But the problem of “few laborers” becomes an indictment upon us today since he has sent us out!

Why does the problem of few laborers happen? I want to suggest four reasons. First, we may not have Christ’s motivation of compassion. This results in no desire to teach. Second, we may not recognize that the harvest plentiful with hurt, yet hungering sinners. Third, we may not recognize that there truly are few laborers. We have a preacher, what more do we need? But there are so many other roles than teaching. This is a team effort that is not successful with teachers alone. We need laborers who make friends and invite them to studies; we need laborers who support, encourage, and connect when the friends do come. We need people praying fervently for these souls. But we often do not see all these roles that must be played and so the laborers are few. Fourth, we do not recognize that we ourselves may not actually be laboring for lost souls.

Honestly, I believe we have quite a few Christians here excited about good works. If we walked into work or school one day and saw a bunch of physically bloodied up and hungry people, I have no doubt that each of us would do our best to bandage them up and feed them. But we often lack the vision to see that this is actually a physical description of the spiritual reality of souls around us. So we grow complacent. This is how today we have a plentiful harvest, but few laborers. We don’t see the situation right. We lack vision to see the true situation. We lack compassion that acts. Just considering the reality of our situation is saddening. How can we fix this? Notice verse 38.

Solution: Pray For More Laborers (38)

As we feel the weight of the situation seen in verse 37, we may look at verse 38 and feel very underwhelmed with Jesus’ solution. There are few laborers for the bountiful harvest and Jesus wants us to pray? Though more happens after his charge to pray, this response to Christ’s call to pray exposes a faulty perspective. Considering the great need and bountiful harvest Christ has shown us, who really has the power to solve this problem? As we see time and again throughout Scripture, God is the one who solves the world’s deficiencies.

Christ is teaching an important lesson by teaching that prayer is the solution to this problem. Our strength cannot reap a single one of all these souls around us. Reaping happens through God alone. If reaping starts with God, our first response to the bountiful harvest but few laborers must be prayer. We are not the authors and finishers of this work. The Lord of the harvest has the power. Yes, we are the laborers; but the Lord of the harvest is the provider of laborers. He alone calls and sends out laborers. He alone provides growth from the message we bring.

This teaches us of the power of prayer. Prayer is not a weak response to problems and deficiencies. Rather, prayer is the most powerful response to situations we can have. We need to grow in our faith in this truth. But we must be careful as we consider how this prayer is powerful. God already knows the need. We are not waking God from his slumber and trying to get him to follow us in this work. In praying for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers, we are entreating the Lord to do this work and expressing our readiness to be sent as laborers. The proof for this is seen when we move into chapter 10. Christ turns to 12 of the disciples he is speaking to and prepares them to be sent into the world. This means that prayer is the perfect response because it both places the power for the salvation of souls in God’s hands and prepares our hearts for action.


As we consider Christ’s example and teaching from this passage, let’s notice a couple applications.

  1. Let Compassion Motivate You. We will clearly get nowhere if we do not learn compassion. If we are indifferent, we will not be motivated. If we have disdain for sinners, we will not be motivated from the right heart. Our approach will display pride and will drive them from Christ. Though we may speak words of truth, we will focus on the wrong truths and present them in an attitude that is not true to Christ’s spirit! We will learn compassion by first recognizing that sinners are helpless and need a shepherd. Imagine what our life would be like if someone did not have the boldness, yet gentleness to introduce Christ to us. We would be in their same situation. Second, we will learn compassion by seeing the truth of the situation in the world. There are many in this situation. There are few doing the work to help their situation. How can we not be driven to compassion when we see the world as Christ sees it! Learn compassion instead of disdain or indifference.
  2. Pray For God to Send. Pray to Be Sent. When we have this compassion, we will be driven to act. God needs more members of this body to labor by inviting, encouraging, connecting, teaching, evangelizing, and shepherding. Where do you fit in? But the biggest mistake we make is trying to labor in one of these roles without first entreating God. We will fall flat on our faces if we try to labor in one of these roles without allowing God to be the author and perfecter of our work through prayer. We cannot meet the need of all these souls on our own. We need the Spirit to open their hearts through God’s word. We need the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers than us as individuals. We need God to call other individuals around us to work. We cannot labor without the Father’s work in all this! Live a life of evangelism that draws all of its power, endurance, and direction from the Father in prayer. Prayer paves the road to the Father’s success in evangelism.
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