NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
Part IV (Con’t)
Verse 36: Jesus saw the large crowds and felt sorry for them because they looked confused and helpless – like a flock of sheep without a shepherd to lead them.
As the word spread, Jesus’ travels extended out from Capernaum. He would stop in a House of Prayer in each town, teach them the Gospel of God’s Kingdom and then spend time healing their sick to demonstrate that He was in fact the Messiah. But the more He traveled and the more people who came to Him for healing, the more His heart began to ache for those who seemed lost in a world of spiritual fog and despair.
The Greek word used here for “helpless” has an interesting connotation. It can mean to sag like a loose rope or to collapse. It is also used as a metaphor for weakness and exhaustion. As such, a person becomes feeble and grows weary with their task. In other words, the people looked like they didn’t think life was worth living anymore. It’s no wonder then that whenever we see a picture of a lonely, distraught person overburdened with care, they always seem to be walking slowly and bent over with their eyes to the ground.
With Jesus being a descendant of a shepherd boy named David, His own shepherd heart hurt for them. These sheep needed to find green pastures to lay down in and quiet waters to drink from in order to give meaning and joy to their lives. This scene may have reminded our Lord of the time when Moses was just about to relinquish his staff to a new leader, he prayed to God, “Lord, You are the God who knows what people are thinking. I pray that You will choose a leader for these people. I pray that You will choose a leader who will lead them out of this land and bring them into the new land. Then Your people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”1 God heard Moses’ prayer, and that’s why Jesus was sent from heaven to their Great Shepherd.2
This same vision was given to the prophet Micaiah when he went to advise King Ahab. He looked at the people and said: “I can see the army of Israel scattered all over the hills, like sheep with no one to lead them.”3 And the Lord complained to Jeremiah, “My people have been like lost sheep. Their shepherds led them the wrong way and caused them to wander away into the mountains and hills. They forgot where their resting place was.”4 And when the Lord spoke to Ezekiel, He was upset about those who were in charge of leading His people on the right path. The Lord said to those shepherds, “Some of the sheep wandered away, and you did not go get them and bring them back. You did not go to look for the lost sheep.”5 Even the prophet Zechariah felt burdened, “The people are like sheep wandering here and there crying for help, but there is no shepherd to lead them.”6 Perhaps all of these Scriptures were on our Lord’s mind when He saw all these people looking for someone to lead them.
Verse 37: Jesus said to His followers, “There is such a big harvest of people to bring in. But there are only a few workers to help harvest them.”
Here is where Jesus uses the word “harvest” figuratively in the sense of gathering people, not to signify collecting grain but as a multitude of souls that needed to be brought into the kingdom of God. We must contextualize here and remember that He was talking about the Jewish people. He had not yet died on the cross, so His reference was for the Jews to have a better understanding about the kingdom of God. Our Lord had only a handful of disciples and He saw that it would take many more followers and time to reach all these people.
Verse 38: “God owns the harvest. Ask Him to send more workers to help gather His harvest.’”
That’s why He implored His disciples to bombard their heavenly Father with the request that He would send many more workers to help. We know that at first Jesus called 12, then His group grew to 72, and then on the Day of Pentecost it had risen to 120, but after Peter’s sermon it expanded to 3000. But He saw beyond that era and knew as the harvest grew, so did the need for workers. Too often when people are brought into the kingdom of God today we treat them like foster children and want to make them codependent on us. Instead, from the beginning we should look at each new convert as a potential worker for the harvest after they have grown up in the Word and been trained to be harvesters.
Although the harvest is still in progress today among the Gentiles, there is also one going on among the Jewish people. In fact, recent statistics say there are over 500 Messianic houses of worship in the USA, and over 100 in Israel. Current estimate of members worldwide is over 350,000. As things become harder and harder for Israelis in the world, who knows how many may finally turn and accept Jesus of Nazareth as their Shepherd and Messiah.
Early Church preacher Chrysostom sees this in the request we are to make to the Lord of the harvest. He writes: “Jesus shows how great the gift is when He says, ‘Ask from the Lord of the harvest.’ And in an inconspicuous manner Jesus indicates that He Himself is the One who holds this authority. Then to signify how promising is the harvest, Jesus calls them to ‘pray therefore the Lord of the harvest.’ In doing so he indirectly declares this lordship to be His own prerogative. For after having said, ‘pray therefore the Lord of the harvest’ when they had not made any request or prayer, He Himself at once appoints them, reminding them also of the sayings of John the Baptizer,7 about the threshing floor, the separation of the husks from the kernels of grain, the husks that are left over, and of the One who is winnowing. From this it is clear that He Himself is the farmer, He Himself is the Lord of the harvest, He Himself is the master of the prophets. For if He sent them to gather the harvest, it is clear that they do not harvest what belongs to someone else. Instead, they harvest the things that He sowed through the prophets. In calling their ministry a harvest, He was encouraging them but also empowering them to this ministry.”8
We know that Chrysostom tailored this sermon to the people of his day in the 4th century. So when we look at it from our advantage point today, we see how other scholars see it. For instance, British theologian Charles John Ellicott (1819-1905) in his commentary on this text suggests that we look at God the Father as the Lord of the Harvest, Jesus the Son as the sower, and the followers of Jesus as the laborers being requested.9 Therefore it was not necessary for Jesus to suggest that they pray to Him, since He was right there. But He knew He would not always be around. So after He returned to the Father, they were encouraged to pray for more laborers to join them in the harvest of the fruit given life through the seed of the Word the Son had spread while He was here on earth.
And so the harvesting goes on up to this present time. And as the population of the world grows by approximately 230,000 babies per day, we must use every method possible to get the word out about the Kingdom of God and the soon appearance of the King after which the entry gate will be closed. But we cannot be effective unless we know what we are talking about and how to make the invitation. So let us give even more of our time studying what Jesus had to say, why He said it, what He meant when He said it, and what He told us to do and say in response.
It should bother all of us that in many churches today when people go to God in prayer, they spend most of their time praying for their own needs, for health, blessings, success, prosperity and victory, and very little time pleading with Him, as Jesus asked His followers to do, for more workers to help in the harvest of lost souls. Going out with the help of the Holy Spirit to bring souls to Jesus for salvation is what really brings believers spiritual health, blessings, success, prosperity and victory. O God, hear our prayer today! Give us the burden to find more workers for your kingdom to bring in the harvest before our Lord’s return. Amen.
1 Numbers 27:14-17
2 Hebrews 13:20
3 I Kings 22:17
4 Jeremiah 50:6
5 Ezekiel 34:4
6 Zechariah 10:2
7 See Matthew 3:12
8 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 32:1-2
9 Charles John Ellicott: A Bible Commentary for English Readers, Cassell and Company Ltd., London, loc. cit.