“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest’” (Matthew 9:35–38).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Seeing. Calling. Sending. That is the movement in the Gospel reading for today. It is also the movement of Jesus’ response to those who are harassed and helpless, of God’s interaction with His fractured and fallen creation, and of the sanctified Christian life as it lives by the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus sees. Jesus calls. Jesus sends.
As He goes throughout the cities and villages, Jesus sees. This is not a minor detail. Many people go through life wondering if anyone sees, anyone notices. If you listen closely, that is at the heart of many of our current social conflicts. A significant number of people are wondering: Does anyone see? Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? Will anyone do anything to help?
The crowds Jesus sees are “helpless and harassed.” The first word literally means “thrown down and helpless,” like exhausted spent, sheep. It is often used with reference to corpses lying scattered on the ground. The second word means “having been flayed,” or somewhat milder, “having skin torn,” as this happens to sheep wandering among brambles or sharp rocks. Both words are made vivid by the comparison: “like sheep without a shepherd.” Having neither protector nor provider, they soon look miserable, torn, and exhausted, a sight to break the heart of any shepherd with even an ounce of compassion.
Jesus does not name the source of the peoples’ harassment, but it is not hard to imagine. Simply look around today. Some are tossed about by injustice, grief, or the abuse of authority. Others are flayed by disease, economic strain, or isolation. Everyone is harassed by a sinful inclination to respond with unrighteous anger, fear, and self-righteousness.
Jesus seems to be thinking particularly of the spiritual condition of the people and the neglect of their supposed spiritual leaders. With the coming of Jesus and the initial course of His ministry, the people’s need for a shepherd has become even more apparent. Israel’s leaders should be nurturing the people and guiding them to follow Jesus, but instead those leaders are blaspheming Jesus, declaring Him to be in league with Satan (Matthew 9:3, 34). At the hands of such false shepherds, the people are helpless and in great need. The souls entrusted to their care receive no wholesome spiritual food and care, for, as far as that is concerned, they are left to fend for themselves.
Material and physical destitution moves our humanitarian age deeply. We organize food banks and disaster relief agencies to help in times of physical distress. But who cares for or even sees spiritual distress? The problem, in part, is many people do not see. Perhaps they cannot, having never put themselves in the position to see. Maybe they don’t know how, having never been taught to see. Perhaps they will not, refusing to look outside their own lives and their own bubbles. Maybe they are just too tired of all the conflict and it’s just easier to pretend it doesn’t exist rather than putting forth the physical and emotional energy it takes for actually dealing with it.
Contrast them (us) with Jesus. Jesus sees. He sees the crowds in the text. He sees their helplessness. He sees those who are harassing them, and He does not look away. This is not surprising, for He is the Son of the One who sees all things—good, bad, and ugly.
Truly seeing others and their plight is a necessary beginning. But if being seen is not accompanied by being helped, it doesn’t do much good. Having seen the crowds, Jesus has compassion. The verb splagcnizomai means to have the viscera moved, lungs, heart, and liver, which were considered to be the seat of emotions, such as love, pity, etc. We might say, “His heart was stirred.” Of the three words translated “being compassionate,” this is the strongest, for it indicates not only a pained feeling at the sight of suffering, but in addition a strong desire to relieve and remove the suffering.
Jesus has compassion on these people, that is, He suffers with them. In this sense, the suffering of Jesus is not limited to the events of Holy Week. It encompasses His entire ministry (even His entire incarnation). Jesus comes among us to suffer with us before He suffers on Golgotha for us.
Jesus has compassion. Jesus suffers with us. We, on the other hand, are not good at suffering with others. Luther’s explanations to the fifth and eighth commandments come to mind. We are to fear and love God by helping and supporting our neighbors in every bodily need. We are to defend them, speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything they do. We often fall short, which must not be excused even though it is true. But Jesus does not. He protects and provides for His people as the Good Shepherd they have been missing.
We see how the compassion of Jesus at once manifests itself in action. Jesus speaks to the larger group of His disciples and bids them to pray to the Father. Jesus uses the metaphor of a great harvest that is approaching. In the fields where the crop is growing ready for harvest, there is urgent need for workers to help gather the harvest. With this figurative language, Jesus communicates to His disciples the urgency of the times, an urgency that continues for the Church to this day. The harvest is ripe! Pray for God to send laborers!
Immediately, the prayer that the disciples are to offer to the Father is answered by Jesus Himself. From the unnamed larger circle of His “disciples,” Jesus now chooses a small number of “apostles,” literally, “sent ones,” whom Jesus will send out to extend His gracious kingdom. They are named individually and given His authority, demonstrating Jesus’ personal care for each of them.
These twelve are hardly men who could normally be expected to change the world. For the most part, they are uneducated, unsophisticated, weak in faith, and slow to learn. They can accomplish their mission only through the authority and power of their Lord. It is the Gospel message, which the Holy Spirit will use to produce saving faith in the hearts of people who hear it.
Jesus sends the apostles to do what He came to do. Through them, Jesus sees, Jesus calls, Jesus sends. Seeing, calling, sending. That is the continuing movement. Jesus continues to send His people to see others (especially the widow, the orphan, and all who suffer injustice) as human beings and fellow creatures of a loving God. Jesus sends His people to have compassion on those who are helpless and harassed; to suffer with them and help them bear their burdens. He continues to send His people to speak words of life and forgiveness that not only create saving faith in the hearts of individuals, but also gather them together for life as His Body. And He continues to send His people to others until all have heard and believed and come together in His name (See Romans 10:14-17).
Jesus asks His disciples, and He also asks us, to share in His compassion, and He tells us the first thing He wants us to do to show such compassion. “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” It is the Lord’s harvest field, and He will see to it that the necessary workers bring the harvest in. He assures us that none of His elect will perish. All His sheep will be gathered into His fold.
Jesus will accomplish this either with us or without us. He doesn’t need us, but He wants to use us. He graciously wants to give us the privilege of being involved in this all-important work, work with blessed results that will last into eternity. And the first thing He asks us to do is exceedingly simple and will cost us nothing but a little of our time. He tells us to pray for laborers for His harvest field. In response to our prayers, He will provide them.
As we sincerely offer such prayers to our heavenly Father, we surely are willing to let Him make us the answers to our own prayers as well. Our Lord will use us in some way or other in this most blessed work, for this work is the privilege of all believers in Christ. Satan wants us to regard it as a grievous burden that we ought to avoid. But it is not a burden, rather a blessing. It is a privilege to pray for this work, to support this work, and to do this work personally.
When we pray for the heathen, for the suffering, for the afflicted, and for our enemies, we want the Lord to use us to alleviate suffering, to spread the Good News of the kingdom of God, and to win over our enemies through kindness. When we pray for missions, we are not only asking the Lord to open the hearts and the hands of others Christians to support mission work; we are also expressing our own willingness to bring our generous offerings for the work of Christ’s Church. Otherwise our prayers are hypocritical and better left unspoken.
Last week, the Gospel reading came from Matthew 28. We call it the Great Commission or Sending. In a sense, this week’s reading gives us the background, the motivation, method, and means for that Sending.
Jesus sees. Jesus calls. Jesus sends.
Even before creation, the Lord looked with compassion and saw our need for His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Christ died for the sins of the world—every single sin of thought, word, and deed. Every sin of commission and omission. Risen and ascended, Christ rules heaven and earth for the good of His Body, the Church. In love and mercy, He continues to call men to serve in the Office of Holy Ministry. In answer to prayers, the Lord of the Harvest sends laborers into the harvest of souls. In His Church, through the means of grace, Christ continues His work of salvation and brings forgiveness and life.
Through the waters of Holy Baptism, God has called you by name and made you one of His dear children. In His Holy Supper, He feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through His powerful Word, He delivers forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Fully forgiven and equipped for service, He sends you out with the message of God’s love and compassion for a world of lost sinners, Shepherdless sheep.
Go in the peace of the Lord. Serve your neighbor with joy. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.