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The compassion of Jesus, sheep without a shepherd, the grain field ready for harvest, praying for reapers--these are four images which introduce us to the subject of discipleship.
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and disease among the people.
But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."
And when he had called His twelve disciples to Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and disease.
Matthew 9:35-10:1 NKJV, condensed
It Starts with Compassion and Prayer
Whoa! The first commandment of discipleship is to pray. Not for ourselves, but for strangers; with few exceptions, we don't even know their names! That will stop most of us in our tracks. Time to get off. But Jesus ignores our discomfort and the train keeps lumbering on. So what are we to pray?Jesus' answer was very succinct, short enough to fit on a postcard: 1) Look with compassion at the people around you; they are God's treasure, a grain field ripe and ready to be gathered in. 2) Pray for God to send workers into his field to do the reaping.
Compassion is an ache in the gut. It's a deep concern for others which calls us into action to try and alleviate their pain. A harvest is all about timing. When the grain is matured, it must be brought into the barn before the winter freeze.
Jesus watched the crowd. On one hand, people looked confused and weary, like sheep scattered across the landscape, ill-served by those entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding them. On the other hand, Jesus described these same people as a bountiful field of golden grain, fully ripe and ready for harvest. So much grain the farmer must have help to bring it all safely into his barn.
Pray, Jesus told his disciples, that the Lord of the harvest will send workers to the field so that none of that precious grain is lost. Pray, Jesus said, that willing workers will come to the aid of the farmer and all of the grain will be saved. Why the sudden urgency, you may ask. Were not the prayers of Jesus sufficient to get the job done! Why did Jesus enlist the supplications of his disciples?
By praying to "the Lord of the harvest" it establishes whose field it is and who is in charge. Disciples are laborers and servants, not owners. Look out over the crowd--this is God's field, these are God's people. Equally important, the best way to generate deeds of loving kindness is to pray. Prayer heightens our awareness. It softens us up and prepares us to enter the fray, roll up our sleeves (or roll them down as is the case in a wheat field) and get to work.
When the disciples allowed these images from Jesus to saturate their minds and thinking, when they had prayed compassion into their hearts, then Jesus called the Twelve to himself and gave them what they needed to care for the sheep and enter the harvest. The hard-working fishermen became reapers in God's eternal field, bringing as many people as they could home to the providence of their loving heavenly Father.
The disciples had to be told to pay attention and really look at the people around them. We do too. Jesus painted some simple pictures to help them understand. We need to take those pictures to heart as well. The disciples had to be told to pray. So do we. And the disciples possessed a God-given power that would do no good unless they used it. Ditto for us.
The words of this passage hit me hard because I strike out on all counts. My prayer life seems like bare bones. I pay little attention to the individuals passing by. And I have no sense of urgency regarding God's harvest. Therefore what can I say on this subject with any integrity! But all is not lost. I am here, within earshot, reading and listening to the words of Jesus. And the language of the kingdom tells me that victory is the final word!
In the meantime I have cloaked myself in the comfort of D. T. Niles' definition of evangelism as, "one beggar telling another beggar where to get food." I know Jesus did not send his disciples out as beggars. But I do not relate to power and authority over sickness and disease. I cannot even imagine the freedom to leave all and follow Jesus. Yet still I am drawn to the possibility that within the circumstances of my own life, I can become a prayerful, compassionate beggar-disciple.
Matthew devoted a whole chapter to the subject of discipleship. Prayer and compassion--it's just the opening volley, the foundation upon which to build, the starting point for all who want to be disciples. Come along. There are some difficult and uncomfortable teachings ahead. But stay the course, within earshot, reading and listening to the words of Jesus. And pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers, because compassion is more than a feeling, it's something we do.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If Jesus were here today, what miracle would you ask for, either for yourself or someone else?
Jesus felt strongly for the physical and spiritual needs of the people around him. What do you feel strongly about? Are they things which bring you pain or things that pain other people?
More than a fleeting emotion, compassion is sorrow which calls us into action; it's a sympathetic consciousness of someone else's distress together with an effort to alleviate it. What is the difference between love and compassion? When has your compassion caused you to act on someone else's behalf? Do you know of any job, other than disciple, for which compassion is a pre-requisite?
Sheep without a shepherd are very vulnerable. No one cares for them. No one looks out for them. If Jesus gazed out over our society today, would he still see sheep without a shepherd? Explain your answer and whether you feel like one of them. Do you have compassion for these "sheep"? Do you pray, or what do you pray, on their behalf? What do you possess in terms of time, talent, powers and resources, which could help to alleviate some of the suffering?
Jesus said it was harvest time. What does that mean? What can we learn from the ordinary farm field which will help us understand the concept of God's harvest and the need for reapers? Name some ways people today are reaping in God's field. Is reaping the job of just some, or are we all supposed to take part in it? (Think of it this way--at the farm, does everyone in the household have a part to play in the harvest?)
We are people with no claim to fame, no crowds following us around, no special power to free someone from their cancerous cells. Is it possible then, for us to learn anything about discipleship from Jesus and his twelve disciples! If so, what can we take from their lives and apply to ourselves?
Give an example of a time when you prayed for God to aid and bless someone, and you became the answer, or part of the answer, to that prayer? What did you do to help God answer your prayer? Which comes first, prayer or compassion?