If you’ve spent any time in church, at church retreats, or among people who go to church or church retreats, you’ve heard this passage:
Then [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37-38.)
If you heard it, chances are you were then told that this meant you, me and everyone else should either be out there telling people about Jesus so they can become Christians, or we should be praying for God to raise up other people to do it.
If so, you only heard half the story.
Harvesting Takes More Than Words
The context for Jesus’ harvest metaphor begins by describing what Jesus had been doing:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38.)
In these travels, then, Jesus did three things: taught, proclaimed, and met physical needs. He noted how harassed and helpless people are and told his followers there was a lot of work still to do.
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. …
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “… As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:1, 5-8.)
When Jesus told his friends to get out there and harvest, he told them people were suffering and the disciples were in a position to do something about it. They could treat the sick and more, along with tell them the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand.
This focus on both temporal relief (healing) and eternal blessing (God’s kingdom is near) together make up the harvest Jesus spoke of, together show how to care for those who are harassed and helpless, together are the work of Jesus and of those who follow him.
This is the harvest Jesus tells us is ready for reaping. Someone who teaches that the harvest is merely winning souls to heaven is not only telling you only half the story, but is ignoring the things that led Jesus to feel compassion on harassed and helpless people in the first place. The people needed both physical and spiritual relief.
In fact, by placing these two not only in proximity but in concert with each other, it becomes evident that the physical and spiritual are inseparable. The harvest either includes both these inseparable aspects of a person’s life or it is not the harvest Jesus spoke of.
Why? Because a person doesn’t have just physical or just spiritual needs. That would be like saying that in order to be well nourished a person needs just food to eat or just water to drink. The need for one might seem more pressing in any given moment but the need for both is always present.
So too with spiritual and physical aspects: every person has both and they cannot be broken out and looked at entirely without regard for one another. Being one of the harvesters Jesus calls for means working for both the physical and spiritual good of the people he has compassion on – the harassed and helpless around you.