The Workers Are Few

Ordinary 11A

Matthew 9: 36 10: 8


The verse, which preceded our reading, is a helpful introduction:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every kind of disease and sickness.

That gives us a "thumbnail" sketch of our Lord's own ministry: teaching preaching, and healing.

Verse 36

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

The word compassion means literally, to "suffer with". The Greek word in Matthew is formed from the term for bowels, and therefore refers to very strong and deep-seated caring for those he is referring to. Jesus indicates here that the plight of his fellow countrymen concerns him deeply. They have no clear leadership, and are therefore very vulnerable to whatever influence is prevailing at any given time. But it need not be that way.

Verse 37 and 38

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".

Here, Jesus is talking in a traditional rabbinic style. The "harvest" refers to those who are ready to receive the truth. It was customary for rabbis and their students to be called "reapers". Our Lord sees the desperate need for reapers, but they must be "workers". They are to labour and, in rabbinic talk, this means:

not living off the work of others;

not idle drones;

not slaves to pleasure, much entertainment, or sin.

As Jesus said, those willing to work, that is, to be sent to work in this way, are few. He therefore instructs his disciples to (literally) beg, to plead to the Lord of the Harvest, to send labourers into the fields to gather the harvest. Such labourers are not those who are self appointed with their chosen career path and destination all carefully crafted and presented to the Lord for formal public endorsement. Our Lord calls for a different attitude in his disciples. They themselves must have been "harvested". They must be attuned to the genuine call from the Lord who looks for those who are willing not just to be sent, but (literally) to be "thrust forth" into his harvest field. The force in the "dispatch" of the labourer is God's compulsive love and concern for his lost creatures. Unless the disciples share this compassion, they will not be people of profound prayer; they will have no power to give effect to God's plans, and their teaching will be shallow and unspiritual.

Chapter 10

Verse 1

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to cure every kind of disease and sickness.

The number twelve was probably chosen by Jesus to correspond to the number of the tribes in Israel (see 19: 28). They are to be the leaders of the new Israel. The understanding of the infant church that it was the true Israel was thus inculcated by our Lord from very early in his ministry.

Jesus gives them "authority" to do two things:

  • drive out evil spirits, and
  • cure every kind of disease and sickness.

Christians can become confused when they ascribe to themselves this authority on the assumption that by association they should be able to do the same. Finding they are in fact unable, they lose faith. Those who try it and succeed tend to claim endorsement for their ministry. We need to take care that we understand our Lord is commissioning selected people for a very specific calling. It does not have general application to all who believe they can appropriate the authority as their own.

The Greek work exousia denotes freedom of action, the right to act. It is delegated authority and the person receiving it is answerable to the person bestowing it. This never changes.

Verses 2 4

Matthew then names the disciples but calls them, significantly, apostles. This word comes from the Greek for "I send a message". It was always used in the sense of a senior person having authority to deliver faithfully a message carefully received and understood. If such a messenger authorized someone else to take that message and hand it down, they were both obliged to give great attention to detail and to ensure the message retained its original meaning. Jesus conveyed this authority orally, and never in writing. Only proven students were delegated with this authority and none received it except by a personal calling and a personal appointment.

Verse 5

Jesus then sent the apostles forth with very clear instructions:

  • "Do not go among the Gentiles."
  • "Do not enter any town of the Samaritans."
  • "Give priority to the lost sheep of Israel."
  • "Preach the message: 
    "The Kingdom of God is near"."
  • "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy; drive out demons."
  • "Freely you have received, freely give."

So Jesus extends to his ordained apostles (those invested with his authority) a second feature of his own ministry. Not only will they heal, they will preach.

The commission was daunting, but with it, and the experience it brought, the apostles eventually came to the spiritual perception of what our Lord was really sending them out to achieve.


We would benefit from a very close examination of this passage, and prayerful meditation on the way our Lord chose to set his Church in motion. He highlighted the place of prayer as a prior requisite, and faithfulness to his specific instructions. He delegated his authority to a chosen few who underwent extensive preparation for this task. They in turn were empowered to pass on this authority but always under the original terms.

Prayer, meditation on his teaching, obedience and faithfulness remain the foundation stones of the Church.

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