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The Harvest is Plentiful, the Laborers Few: Bible Study

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Churches, Prayer

Blink and you could almost miss this little yet plentiful passage in the middle of Matthew. But it is a pivotal point where the focus shifts from Jesus’ ministry to ours. It’s humbling, challenging and exciting.


35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 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 pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:35-38 (ESV)

About Tearfund

Tearfund is a Christian agency working for a just and compassionate world.

Our story

Watch: The story of Punya Pokharel, a father of three, an organic farmer, and a disability advocate in Nepal who has the extraordinary skill of walking 'upside down'.

Discuss: When you think about the needs of those around you, and all around the world, how do you (or your friends) feel?

  • Do you avoid the news because it’s too overwhelming and you feel powerless to change anything? (In a way it’s easier if you don’t know about the problems in the first place…)
  • Do you feel heartbroken by your feelings of deep compassion for people suffering and disappointment with the global systems perpetuating injustice?
  • Do you sometimes edge towards judgmental thoughts? (“the man begging on the corner actually looks ok and couldn’t be that poor, he’s putting it on to scam me so I’ll ignore him and keep walking…”)

Read: Matthew 9:35-38

Discuss: any words or aspects of the passage that stand out to you.

For me, some of the things that stand out are:

v35: Jesus is in all the towns, teaching and healing everyone

v36: Jesus sees the needs and has deep compassion

v37-38: ‘harvest’ x 3

v38: So … pray earnestly

Flick: through Matthew 3-9 and map out briefly the context for this passage: what has Jesus been up to since His baptism and anointing in Matthew 3?

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After Jesus’ gruelling and formative time of wrestling with the Devil in the desert (Matthew 4), He then begins His preaching ministry with the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” After this, Jesus calls the first disciples, four fishermen, to follow Him, and travels throughout Galilee teaching, preaching and healing every sickness and affliction (Matthew 4). The next two chapters (Matthew 5-7) are the wonderful Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ countercultural instructions to His disciples on how to live. And following that, Matthew 8-9 are action-packed with miraculous healing after healing (I counted eleven separate stories), all performed by Jesus.

And then comes this little, but plentiful passage in chapter 9.

Discuss: How and what do you think Jesus would have been feeling at this point in His ministry?

If it was me I know I would be feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the crowds and their constant needs by this time, but Jesus’ is so different and His tender, compassionate response is compelling.

The Greek verb translated as “had compassion” indicates that Jesus was ‘moved in His innermost being’, such was His deep ache for the people He saw. This phrase is used frequently in the Gospels to describe Jesus’ gut-wrenching feelings for people in need (see eg. Matthew 14:14, Matthew 15:32 and Matthew 20:34). He’s not indifferent to our struggles, nor does He blame people for the mess they’re found themselves in. What a challenging model Jesus gives us: to see people as He sees them and to feel deep, gut-wrenching compassion for people as He feels.

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Up to Matthew 9:37, the focus of most of Matthew so far has been on Jesus’ work with people’s needs being met by the loving Shepherd. But verse 37 shifts the focus to our work with God’s needs being met by His people. On the one hand we know that our Sovereign Lord will accomplish all of His purposes for the world; and yet, at the same time, He chooses to work through us to achieve His purposes! This is emphasised by what follows after this passage: Matthew 10, where Jesus declares “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (10:7) and calls the 12 disciples and equips them with amazing powers and authority to join Him in His work.

And not only is Jesus inviting us to join Him in His work, but He needs us now! Matthew shifts his metaphor from sheep without a Shepherd to a harvest metaphor.

The word ‘harvest’ is used three times in verses 37-38 and the act of harvesting implies a sense of urgency. The time is just right. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Now. There’s no time to lose. The harvest might be spoiled or lost if the farmer delays. And similarly for us in our broken world, now is the time for us to respond. Our world is crying out for God’s Kingdom to be made real. Each one of us has a part to play as bearers of God’s Good News in our broken world. Are we ready to join the harvesting team and work all night for our farmer?

Discuss: What is the “work” Jesus is looking for workers to do?

For me, this sums up Tearfund’s approach to our work so well and what we describe as ‘integral mission’:

  • To proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the Kingdom;
  • To enable healing and empower people to experience dignity and fullness of life; and
  • To see people through Jesus’ eyes and to feel deep compassion for them.

Reflect: Where might God be revealing to you that He needs you to really see and feel the needs around you or help with the harvest around you right now?

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Discuss: What is Jesus’ first command to the disciples in this passage? (Hint: it was not to advertise or organise a team of enthusiastic helpers!)

Pray: Spend some time praying earnestly:

  • Pray for Tearfund’s partners, as they seek to live out integral mission in some of the toughest parts of the world;
  • Pray for more people to join you (and Tearfund) to see those in need and feel Jesus’ compassion towards them; and that we would be freed from indifference or fatigue.
  • Ask God how He might be wanting to use you to help Him with His work. What is the unique role you have to play?
  • Ask God what is one way you could respond to His mandate afresh this week (and pray for His Spirit to equip you to do it)?

You might like to make a plan to pray at the same time as other members of your Tearfund Group or church group each day this coming week for these points.

When we pray as He commanded, we will see what He saw, feel what He felt, and do what He did. God will multiply our lives as we share in the great harvest that is already ripe.

Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019)