Matthew 9:35-38, “The Lord of the Harvest”
Matthew 9:35-38. Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, other than a detour into the country of the Gadarenes, all of Christ’s activity has been focused in Capernaum in northern Galilee, where He has used Peter’s home as the center of His ministry. After the accusation by the Pharisees in v. 34 that Jesus was performing His miracles through demonic power, Jesus leaves Capernaum and begins to teach and preach throughout Galilee and the surrounding region. Specifically, He is teaching in both large cities and country villages. He is not only speaking on hillsides and on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but also in the synagogues. It is at this point that the moment from Luke 4:16-21 would seem to fit best – when Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 in Nazareth’s synagogue, and He declares the Scripture fulfilled in their hearing. Synagogue services during the time of Jesus had a set lectionary, and they typically read through the Torah over the course of three years (Graves, p. 473). A selection from the prophets of the Old Testament referred to as the haftarah would be chosen and read by the last person – the maftir – who had a reading from the Torah. The task of reading from the Torah was divided between seven readers (Ibid., p. 475), so on the day referred to in Luke 4, Jesus would have been the last Torah reader, and so He was the one to read from the prophets. Upon hearing that the prophet’s words had been fulfilled, His audience began to scoff at Him. He knew that His fame has preceded Him, and He knew the thoughts of the people in the synagogue – “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum (Luke 4:23).” Of course, Jesus was constantly busy in Capernaum with healings and exorcisms of many kinds – He even raised the daughter of the ruler of Capernaum’s synagogue from the dead. Word of that would have spread quickly to all of Galilee’s synagogues – including the one in Nazareth.
In verse 37, Jesus looks at the crowds of people who are following after Him, and He sees them as both weary and scattered. His mind turns to 1 Kings 22:17a. “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd …” Jesus is struck with compassion for these people, and His thoughts are also in a sense a judgment call against the shepherds – the synagogue elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes – who were all supposed to be looking out for God’s flock. It isn’t that the flock didn’t have shepherds. It is that the shepherds were looking out for themselves and for their own glory. Jesus’ mind stayed on this subject a great deal of the time, which is clear from so much of that the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five through seven. Most of the Sermon can be summarized as, “Don’t be like so many of today’s religious authorities – keep your hearts clean before God and find a better way.” Then Jesus turns from an image of God’s people as sheep to an image of God’s people as a large garden that promises a great crop. People were responding to the message of Jesus, and much good was being done – but who will take care of the Lord’s garden – this garden so close to the time of harvest? At this point, Jesus gives the Father a new name: the Lord of the Harvest, and He encourages His disciples to pray for the Lord to send workers out into that harvest. Pope Paul VI’s words based on this passage are worth remembering. “… the responsibility of spreading the saving Gospel belongs to everyone! of all who received it. Missionary duty involves the whole body of the Church. In different ways and in different measures, yes; but we all, we must all show solidarity in the fulfillment of this duty. Now let the conscience of every believer ask himself: have I fulfilled my missionary duty? Prayer for the Missions is the first way of fulfilling this duty (Angelus Domini).”
Graves, Michael, “The Public Reading of Scripture in Early Judaism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 50/3 (September 2007) pp. 467–87. >
Paul VI, Angelus Domini, 23 October 1977.