Here’s another proof-text beloved of evangelists: “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” (Matt. 9:37–38; cf. Lk. 10:2). It will no doubt get a good airing in the coming months as the Church of England prepares for a week of prayer for evangelism in May, leading up to Pentecost. It will seem obvious to many that Jesus’ saying is as relevant now as it ever was—he wouldn’t have said it otherwise. The harvest is waiting to be brought in. We just need to pray for more people to go out and share their faith.
But do we have any reason—exegetically speaking—for thinking that Jesus’ words hold true for the situation that we face in western Europe in the 21st century? Should the text be applied in such a simple fashion to our own context?
Jesus is speaking and ministering to Israel. Two blind men have just hailed him as the “Son of David” (Matt. 9:27). He is travelling around Galilee “teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom”. The “gospel of the kingdom” is not the offer of personal salvation through the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the public announcement that YHWH is about to intervene dramatically in the history of first century Israel to put things right.
One of the things that needed putting right was the fact that large numbers of ordinary Jews in Galilee and Judea were “troubled and cast out, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The motif crops up a few times in the Old Testament, but the most important allusion is to Ezekiel’s prophecy against the feckless shepherds of Israel: “they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts” (Ezek. 34:5; cf. Num. 27:17; 1 Kgs. 22:17). YHWH says that he will seek out and rescue his sheep and set in place over them “one shepherd, my servant David” (Ezek. 34:22-23).
The harvest was plentiful, therefore, because there were many Jews in Israel who had been let down by the established leadership and who could be expected to respond positively to the announcement that YHWH was now seeking them out—as a shepherd goes looking for the one sheep out of a hundred that is lost—and was about to install a new and good shepherd over them, a son of David. If this was indeed what YHWH was doing, then it made sense to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out workers to bring the harvest in.
The disciples were then sent out with the same message: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They were pointedly instructed not to go to the Gentiles and Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6-7). No one was to be converted. Jews were simply given the opportunity to believe or disbelieve the message, with the grim warning that on the day of judgment it would be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for the town that rejected Jesus’ messengers (Matt. 10:15).
Does this story tell us anything about the likelihood of evangelistic success today? Of course not. It is part of a larger story about the traumatic renewal of God’s people in the first century, which is part of the larger story still of biblical Israel.
Our story is different—a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then; and I think it would be foolish, if not irresponsible, to suggest that we can take this missional formula and expect it to work under very different conditions.
This is not an argument for doing nothing. It’s an argument for not kidding ourselves, for not being presumptuous, for doing what’s appropriate… and for reading the New Testament properly.