In a hyper-politicized atmosphere like the one surrounding us now, every problem seems to be cloaked in some aspect of party politics. Thus, envisioned solutions are dependent on achieving a perceived legislative victory. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. At their core, the problems plaguing our country are spiritual, and they won’t be solved by simply spending more hours sitting on a church pew or engaging in another praise and worship session. As our pastor says repeatedly, those activities are not incorrect, they’re just incomplete. That idea brought a familiar passage of Scripture to mind recently that was illustrated in a way that I thought worth sharing.
Context is Vital ~
In spite of knowing how vital context is in effective communication, virtually all of us are guilty of lifting some phrase, or some verse of Scripture out of its original context. We all have our favorite Scriptural nuggets that are powerfully appealing to us, and that we apply in all kinds of ways that may have nothing to do with the context in which they were originally delivered. That often robs us of insights that could add to our understanding and multiply the impact of God’s words. I was reminded of that again recently in reference to one of those passages in Matthew’s Gospel that I had underlined years ago. He recorded it like this:
Then He [Jesus] said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. 38 Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37–38 NKJV)
Jesus’ admonition isn’t complicated or confusing. It’s simply a heartfelt instruction for His followers to pray. The disciples may have felt relieved in that it was one request He made of them that at least seemed easily doable. It didn’t require special gifts or training, it didn’t cost them any money, and it wasn’t physically demanding. It wasn’t that hard to do, but if we don’t consider the surrounding context, we might miss what moved Jesus so deeply that day. Missing that, we might also miss the motivating factor intended to sustain our faithfulness in carrying out Jesus’ instruction. Here’s a description of the scene that prompted Jesus’ directive that day:
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every 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.” (Matthew 9:35–38 NKJV)
A Disturbing Picture ~
After days spent going throughout Galilee and responding to every kind of helplessness and hopelessness, Jesus gazed intently at the gathering multitude coming toward Him. To Him, they looked like sheep without a shepherd. That’s not a picture we Westerners generally relate to, but it had graphic and profound implications to Jesus, and His heart was filled with compassion. Perhaps He recalled a passage written by the Prophet Ezekiel, who also referred to people as sheep.
To God’s prophet, his fellow countrymen were like sheep whose spiritual shepherds had abused and abandoned them. The precarious situation that the weary, scattered, and deserted sheep were left in aroused compassion, anger, and a sense of urgency in the heart of God in Ezekiel’s day, and the status of those Jesus saw was no better. The disturbing truth we need to confront is that the condition of the sheep in our country today has not improved. Ezekiel’s words are sobering:
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” says the Lord God, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”—therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:7–10 NKJV)
As even we Westerners know, sheep are pretty defenseless and vulnerable animals. Without a shepherd to guide and protect them, they are easy prey for virtually any carnivorous predator. Sheep are at terrible risk even when their flock is held together, but those Jesus referred to were not only shepherdless, they were exhausted and thrown about by forces they couldn’t escape or control.
No Safe Place ~
The scene grows worse for the sheep when we consider that there’s a predator actively stalking them. Peter gave us a verbal picture of the predator, but we need to understand that he was describing the devil’s nature, not his appearance. Satan will assume any image that might look attractive and appealing to a wandering, defenseless sheep, but his nature and intent never changes. He might look beautiful on the outside, but inwardly, he is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:6). None of the human “sheep” in America or anywhere else are safe. Every seductive pleasure, deceitful promise, depraved practice, destructive compulsion, deranged idea, and violent impulse that hell ever spawned comes looking for us every day . . . So how did Jesus respond to what He was seeing, and what does He want us to do?
It’s interesting to begin by considering what Jesus did not do. He did not send His disciples out to criticize and scold all the wandering sheep. He didn’t order them to engage in a campaign to replace all the failing and phony shepherds. The first thing He did was to shift to an agricultural metaphor. Then He envisioned a potential harvest and instructed them to pray specifically for laborers. The urgent need of those sheep Jesus beheld in Galilee that day wasn’t for a political icon to rise up and deliver them. In the opinion of the incarnate Son of God, what was needed were a bunch of “workers”. As I pondered that passage again, a personal, close-to-home observation came to mind.
An Illustration Close to Home ~
One of our grandsons owns a lawn care and landscaping business. His hard work and commitment to quality has resulted in a significant increase in the number of people and businesses desiring his services . . . which actually creates somewhat of a problem for him right now. He can’t meet those growing demands with the personnel and equipment he currently has. What he needs is more laborers. Hmmm… Sound familiar?
Our young entrepreneur doesn’t need someone to ride around all day offering critical opinions about how he mows lawns or does his landscaping work. He doesn’t need someone with a degree in horticulture to teach a class on how fescue was developed. He doesn’t need someone to sing songs to his customers about being delivered from the heartbreak of crabgrass. He doesn’t need people who show up for a couple of hours a week and claim to be on his “team” because they believe in nice lawns. Instead, he needs someone willing to show up on time, climb on a mower, run a trimmer, operate a blower, and who’s not afraid of digging in the dirt and sweating in the summer heat. Fruitless philosophers, passive observers, self-appointed critics, and entertainment mongers won’t get the job done either in lawn care or in reaching out for the wandering sheep.
Sitting on a pew doesn’t qualify as spiritual labor, even if the speaker is boring and the music is too loud. Our job is not to overthrow the worthless spiritual shepherds feasting on flocks they’re commissioned to feed and protect. Our job is not just to pray for more laborers, but also to be one of them. In Jesus’ terms, that means engaging the sheep personally and using whatever gifts we’ve been given to meet whatever needs we find.
Being politically active in support of righteous issues is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. Responding as Jesus admonished us, instead, will produce a more profound and eternal impact than any political party can ever deliver.
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “Satan will assume any image that may look attractive & appealing to wandering, defenseless sheep but his nature & intent never change. He may look beautiful on the outside, but inwardly he’s a roaring lion seeking to devour (I Ptr 5:6).” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Fruitless philosophers, passive observers, self-appointed critics, and entertainment mongers won’t get the job done in reaching out for the wandering sheep. Sitting on a pew doesn’t qualify as spiritual labor.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Our job is not just to pray for more laborers, but also to be one of them. In Jesus’ terms, that means engaging the sheep personally and using whatever gifts we’ve been given to meet whatever needs we find.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Being politically active in support of righteous issues is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. The response Jesus admonished will have a more profound and eternal impact than any political party can ever deliver.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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