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Lord of the Harvest

by Gary Roth

Matthew 9:36-38

It makes a great difference what we see when we approach people. Matthew tells us that Jesus had been "going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness." (vs. 35) Then Matthew makes this significant observation: "seeing the multitudes, Jesus felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.'" (9:36-38)

When Jesus looked over the crowds, he saw people. When his disciples looked over the crowds, they also saw people.

When Jesus looked over the crowds, he saw shepherdless sheep. His disciples saw only people.

When Jesus looked over the crowds, he saw a harvest that was ripe. His disciples saw only people.

When we look about us today, what do we see?

The world population today stands just below six billion people. To grasp the enormity of that number; if we were to change that number into units of time: A billion days ago, the earth was probably not yet created. A billion hours ago, Genesis had not yet been written. And one billion seconds ago, Jesus was still walking the earth! One billion is an unimaginably large number.

There are almost six billion people on the earth today. Of that number, one-third call themselves Christians, another third have heard the Gospel, but have been unresponsive to it, and one-third have yet to hear the Gospel. There are so many that we have yet to reach!

Even in our own community, among people we know - our friends, neighbors and relatives, the people that we see every day - how many of them have heard clearly, how many of them have experienced in an unmistakable way the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

We often think of the billions of people in this world as different from us - different cultures, different languages, different values. But they really aren't - they hold the same hopes for their life, they share the same aspirations and longings the we do. Without Jesus, all of them are shepherdless sheep. Without Jesus, they are an unpicked harvest. The Gospel speaks to their deepest needs, just as it does to ours. Just like us, they long for freedom, for a sense of meaning in their life, for security, for forgiveness, for wholeness - all of those things of which Jesus spoke. They have a need for deliverance, for healing, for reconciliation. That is what Jesus is all about. Jesus saw the people of his day, and of every day, as spiritually distressed, troubled, hindered and confused by the very people who should have been their protectors and leaders. He saw his people as a shepherdless flock - wandering, lost, sick, torn, bleeding, not knowing where to turn.

Is it so different today?

When Jesus saw the crowds, he was moved to compassion. The word translated as "compassion" is the strongest word that Matthew could have used to express Jesus' feeling. It's used, in the New Testament, only in the synoptic Gospels. It's used to describe his feeling toward the leper, the blind men, toward the widow of Nain, and here, of the crowds. And each time, as Jesus feels compassion, he is moved to action. Compassion is a passion that moves Jesus to action.

Jesus, as he looked at the people, saw them as shepherdless sheep. You know, he could have seen them in a lot of other ways. He could have seen them as dirty, hell-bound sinners, not worthy of God's love and grace. And he would have been right. We hear a lot of that kind of preaching: "fire and brimstone." He could have seen them as hardheaded, hard-hearted unbelievers who were intent on rejecting his claim and on crucifying him. And he would have been right - that's the way the story played out. He could have viewed them as selfish, materialistic, bigoted, small-minded people with no vision for God's kingdom and little desire to do God's will. And he would have been right. That's the way people are - even a lot of folks in the church are that way.

But instead he saw shepherdless sheep, and so he was moved to compassion. It's one thing to see people, you see. It is another thing entirely to see them as shepherdless sheep, and to be moved to compassion for them.

The question is: When you walk down the street, when you are standing in line at the check-out counter, when you are crawling through traffic, or dealing with a difficult person - what are you thinking about them? "What's the matter with that jerk?! Who let him out? They ought to shoot people like that and put them out of their misery!" When we are faced with problems of other people, we can be moved with resentment, or disgust, or even anger. Most of the time we are simply indifferent toward them. We easily become overwhelmed by the amount of need that surrounds us, and we build up walls, in defense, to keep others out. It is so much easier to just pass people by - to pretend that they don't exist, or to pretend that there is no need they have that we can meet - that they are somehow different from us.

There are times when God wants us to cry with him because of the needs of his children. He needs to have us open our hearts to one another, to remember that, because we belong to him, we also belong to one another. We have difficulty seeing people as Jesus sees them - as God sees them. It's too unsettling, too upsetting. To see people as he sees them forces us to see our own life differently - it means that we cannot focus on ourselves and our own needs any longer. We have to die to ourselves at that point, so that we can express the compassion of Christ through our own concern for others.

Jesus promises that there is a harvest that will come. Our job is not to count the harvest, or to determine its quality, or to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is our job to be faithful presenters of the Word, to be faithful witnesses - to be the hands and feet of the Gospel. We are to see people as shepherdless sheep, and to bring them to meet the Good Shepherd.

The time is short. Ripe harvest, if not reaped, rot.

How do you see people? And how do you respond to their need?

Jesus is calling faithful workers today. People who are not afraid to leave everything to follow him. People who are not ashamed to be called 'Christian." People who are willing to lose control over their life - who are not afraid to be people of compassion.

Are you that person? Is he calling you today? "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the harvest, that he may send faithful workers into his harvest."