SynopsisThis is a very familiar passage to most Christians. Jesus is travelling through villages and cities, teaching, proclaiming the Gospel, and healing people. Having compassion on the crowds, because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 36 (ESV) ), he addresses his disciples:
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.” (verses 37–38 (ESV) )
ThoughtsJesus is travelling all over, teaching people and healing them of their afflictions, and he has compassion on them. Why? Because they’re so sick, or hungry? Well, he probably does have compassion on them for that, too, but it isn’t his primary focus. His primary focus is on the fact that their religious leaders are leading them astray. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 36 (ESV) , emphasis added).
Obviously Jesus cared about people’s physical needs, because he spent a lot of his time helping them with those needs, but their souls were even more important to him. Like Jesus, we should be concerned with both: helping those around us with their physical needs, just as he did, and also preaching the Gospel and helping them with their spiritual needs, just as he did. There seems to be a dichotomy in the modern church, whereby Christians fall into one of two camps: you either want to help people with their physical needs (and don’t care what they believe), or you only care about dogmatic belief in your way of thinking (and people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, not come looking for handouts). Jesus would have none of either of these positions. It does matter what people believe, because your beliefs can lead you straight to hell. We should help those around us, which is, after all, the second most important commandment (Mark 12:28–34 (ESV) ).
But now we get to the part of the passage that most people focus on, in verses 37–38. I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t say to the disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers few; therefore go out and do some harvesting!” Instead, he says, “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers.” If you’re praying for the Lord to send out someone to harvest, His answer may very well be for you to go—especially if you’re praying earnestly, as Jesus says here, which would indicate that your heart is really in the right place for this—but that’s not what Jesus tells his disciples.
I can think of a few reasons (none of which are revolutionary) why Jesus might have commanded his disciples to pray instead of going out and doing:
- The obvious reason is that we should never try to do anything in our own power, but always trust in God’s power instead. Even if God does plan to send you, it’s not something you should take for granted, and it’s not something you can do on your own.
- It may be that God wants to send someone else, instead of you. There may be cases where He really does just want you to pray, and not do.
- He may not want to send you yet. He might not give you a distinct message to that effect—He rarely does—but He may decide to put obstacles in your way, first, to delay you.
I’m not advocating prayer paralysis; we shouldn’t get so stuck in prayer, waiting for a response from God, that we never do anything. But the flip side is also bad: we’re very prone to thinking that God wants action, when sometimes He isn’t calling for action, but just for us to trust in Him. We greatly devalue prayer in our society, because it feels lazy to us. “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, pray,” we think, and to be honest, we’re sort of suspicious that the ones who are “just” praying are kind of shirking their responsibility. (Unless, maybe, they’re the older women in the church, and then we can call them “prayer warriors” and not worry about it so much.) How opposite to the Scriptures, which say that God is in control of everything, and we can’t do anything unless He brings it to pass. Prayer should always be our first response, and action, if required, should come second.