Are you harassed and helpless? Or maybe you just look that way but inside everything is calm and peaceful! Perhaps ‘Harassed and Helpless’ might be a good name for a competitor to ‘confused.com’. Other online comparison sites are available…
In our Gospel verses today, Jesus is travelling from one village to another, teaching and ministering to the crowds. We’re told that he’s overcome with compassion because he sees that they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). In Greek, the word for ‘harassed’ means ‘to be mangled, torn apart, or cut to the bone’. The word for ‘helpless’ means ‘to throw to the ground’. Jesus saw these people the way his Father saw them: as victims – they were hurt, betrayed, abused, torn apart, beat down, discarded, and walked on. They had no one to care for them.
We’ve probably all seen our share of hurting people. Maybe they’re overseas in some of the news reports. Or we see it in the face of someone in town who is homeless. Perhaps it’s within our own circle of family and friends. Maybe “harassed and helpless” is how we describe ourselves at times. Perhaps it’s how we’re feeling right now.
Jesus was broken with compassion for people who were hurting. Jesus is broken for people who are hurting. When we stop for long enough to see people the way God does, our hearts can break, too. One of the very moving things that June and I have found in the last few weeks is the number of people who have come alongside us with hearts broken along with ours.
In that moment of emotion, of compassion, Jesus calls for a solution: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37). Then he summons the 12 disciples and sends them off with a job to do.
Get on with it
It’s interesting to compare in Matthew, Mark and Luke how Jesus tells his disciples to get on with it.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appoints the twelve – but then, we’re told, he goes home (3:19b)… In Luke, Jesus spends a night in prayer, calls the disciples together, tells them that they’ll be sent out but then goes down the mountain with them and starts preaching (6:12-49). They’re not actually sent out for another 3 chapters (9:1-6). They’d been prayerfully selected but the action is postponed.
Here in Matthew though, Jesus is right in the thick of it. He’s preaching and teaching and healing in amongst the crowds. But there’s so many that he needs help. So, he tells his disciples to go and do the same. Exactly the same. At the end of our reading, he gives them authority to do the very same things that we’re told Jesus himself was doing at the start of our verses.
There’s a sense of urgency here. The time is ripe. So, let’s get on with it. Those named are being appointed, authorised, licensed, ordained (pick which word you want) with a charter of what they should be doing. As John puts it: “as the father sent me, so I send you” (20:21)
In military jargon, these disciples are being deployed, put into action. They are active and engaged in the ministry of Jesus. They are making disciples by walking with God, reaching the world around them. “Boots-on-the-ground” and getting on with it. They’re not randomly doing stuff – they’re following Jesus’ instructions on what to say and where to go.
It begs the question, what does it mean to be a disciple?
The answer from Matthew seems to be that a true disciple is a deployed disciple. An active disciple. It isn’t someone who simply believes in Jesus but just spends their time working on spiritual disciplines like reading the Bible and prayer – vitally important though that is. No, they are actively advancing the kingdom of God by reaching out to people for Christ and walking alongside them in their journey of faith.
We often hear that verse quoted about the harvest being plentiful but the labourers are few when someone is making a plea for more volunteers in church. We need more people to help with coffee or the Summer Fair or with the cleaning – and a signup sheet goes up at the back of church.
But Jesus isn’t telling us to pray for more volunteers within the church; he’s telling us to pray for people to be sent out from the church. The harvest is where the hurting, the harassed, and the helpless are—those who feel lost, those who need the hope of the gospel. Many of us who come to church might feel like that too but there are many, more outside.
Walk with Jesus
True disciples are deployed. They intentionally and purposefully seek out those who feel far from God and they invest their lives to help them walk with Jesus. It’s how Matthew’s Gospel ends, with us being told to make disciples, to help people in their walk of faith. Many today are doing just this, and, in some cultures, they are doing it in the face of hostility, resistance and persecution.
But Jesus never said that it would be easy. Being a labourer in a first century harvest was tough work and I wonder what jumble of images sprang to mind for the disciples when Jesus used this as a picture of the opportunity (or challenge) that he was giving them. Reaping for instance was extremely hard physical labour. Swinging a hand-held sickle, bent over with an arched back, working from sunrise to sunset through the heat of the day and with the hindrance of swarms of insects.
Or did the disciples think of different produce ripening at different times through the year. As well as wheat and barley there might have been grapes and olives, figs and pomegranates. Many different sorts of harvests. It would be possible to find a variety of work throughout Palestine’s seven-month harvest season, if you were flexible with what you did and were prepared to move around.
Maybe they thought that the work was essentially seasonal, irregular and unpredictable. Bursts of extreme activity interspersed with times of enforced idleness.
With you always
Jesus uses the imagery of harvest. As his modern-day disciples, I think we might learn that at times this will be hard work, but it might be varied too if we go with what opportunities present themselves. And yes, there might be periods of uncertainty where nothing seems to be happening – but in fact it’s in those times that the crop is growing, perhaps unseen and underground.
In whatever way that we think about it, Jesus promised that he would be with those who went out for him. “I am with you always” he says (28:20) – our participation in Jesus’ mission means that we get caught up in the very life of God’s Son given to the world. And he promises that we would be given the words to say when we need them, by the Spirit of the Father speaking through us (10:19-20).
Can you imagine groups of men and women in our church, in our Benefice and in our Mission Community, who are getting on with the job of reaching people with the gospel? Can you imagine people willing to invest their time and energy in others, showing them how to walk with God?
Jesus imagined. That was his vision, his great commission, for his church.
And it still is.
Are you one of those? Are you willing to be actively deployed for Jesus? Are you deployed for Jesus, walking alongside the ‘harassed and helpless’ in their journey of faith? If you’re not, then what’s stopping you?
Let’s pray that each one of us might get on with it – and be labourers in whatever fields in which we find ourselves. Amen
- For background on harvesting in 1st century Palestine: https://www.academia.edu/100744830/The_Agricultural_Background_of_the_Harvest_Logion_in_Matthew_9_37_8_and_Luke_Q_10_2