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.”
In these verses, we have a summary of the events in the early Galilean ministry of Jesus that connect several chapters together. In 4:18-22, we saw Jesus call disciples, in 4:22-25, we saw a summary of His activities. Then in 5:1-7:29, we had Jesus’ ministry in words, followed by His ministry in deeds in 8:1-9:34. Now, in 9:35 we have a summary of those deeds and words; this will be followed by action in 9:36-11:1 as the disciples are sent out to replicate what Jesus has been doing.
In order for us to make sense of this series of events, we need to recognize two things: First, Jesus Himself IS the Kingdom in a body, thus wherever He went, the Kingdom went with Him. Second, we must realize that the disciples were not simply along for the ride, they were being taught to become the Kingdom themselves, even though I doubt they understood this just yet. Ultimately, however, they became the embodiments of the Kingdom by the indwelling of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Matthew summarizes the action in verse 35, and then shares what Jesus was seeing in those crowds; a harvest. He had compassion for the people, not condemnation; He loved them and knew that in spite of the constant presence of their religious leaders, nobody was there who could show them the way to God, and so they were helpless and adrift in a harsh world. So there Jesus was; He could make speeches, and He could form relationships with some, but there were simply too many people who needed Him; there simply were not enough hours in the day for Him to heal everyone who needed Him.
That is where His disciples come into the picture. As He tells them to pray to the “Lord of the Harvest” for more workers, little did they know that they were going to be those workers.
Here’s a question to ponder: When we look out at those people “out there”, do we see helpless people who need a loving shepherd, or do we just see “The Wicked”?