Matthew 9:35-38Then 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. When he 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 ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I would first like to step back from the baggage this passage has acquired. Usually it is interpreted in terms of evangelism. The “harvest” is the souls that Christians are going out to “win” or “save.” So, knowing that up front let’s see if that is actually what’s happening in the text. After the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) there are a lot of stories about healing with two interludes (8:18-27; 9:9-17). The above passage is the capstone of this whole narrative (Mt 8-9) before the story shifts towards Jerusalem and Jesus’ imminent death. There will be some healing and miracles in the second half of Matthew, but primarily it is parables and the passion account.
This whole section gets started with Jesus healing two outsiders, a leper and a Roman soldier. Jesus has some difficult words for his followers (8:18-21) and shows his command of nature (8:23-27). Again he turns to outsiders and heals the Gadarene demoniac (8:28-9:1). The healing of the paralytic is more about Jesus’ daring to claim the authority to forgive sins (9:2-8). Then he calls Matthew (the presumed author of this gospel) a tax collector, a despised profession. That calling concludes with “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners” (9:13). Then there is the discussion of fasting and feasting we have talked about (9:14-17). Jesus heals a girl and a woman, both marginalized people, and two more before this concluding passage(9:18-34).
So, what’s the point of all this healing? And what does it have to do with our passage about harvest and laborers?
Well verse 35 sums it up nicely. Jesus is “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and “curing every disease… and sickness.” In Greek the “and” does not necessarily denote two separate, isolated and distinct things. In fact, wherever Jesus goes it seems that the coming of the kingdom and healing of sickness and disease go hand in hand. They are bound up together in the in-breaking of God’s future perfection in Jesus. In the next verse Jesus has compassion, not because people are sick or diseased, but because they have no hope. Healing is a sign of the kingdom, but the kingdom itself is so much more. It is precisely following the summation of Jesus’ ministry (proclaiming the kingdom and healing the sick) and his sense of compassion for the hopeless crowd that Jesus proclaims a plentiful harvest.
Let’s remind ourselves that the terms “harvest” and “laborers” were not abstract spiritual concept to these original hearers. Harvest means life or death and most of life is labor and toil for subsistence farmers. Certainly Jesus is using the terms on more than one level, but we shouldn’t toss out the literal physical meaning of what he says for the spiritual. Perhaps they are meant to be taken together to say something like, “You know only subsistence, but when God reigns there will be more than enough. The problem is there aren’t enough people willing to bring in this kingdom harvest. Pray to the God of abundance for all to send laborers into the harvest of his kingdom which includes both physical and spiritual redemption and reconciliation.”
It has also been pointed out that in the narrative Jesus tells only his disciples this line about the harvest and then immediately in chapter 10 sends them out. Apparently they were the answer to their own prayers.