“I volunteer as tribute.” So goes the turning point of one of most popular young adult novels in the past few decades. Seeing a death sentence being pronounced on her younger sister, protagonist Katniss Everdeen reluctantly volunteers to participate in the deadly Hunger Games in her sister’s stead.
Such is the reluctance at times, with which I have read about God sending workers into his harvest field, and it is a reluctance with which I suspect many others struggle. Matthew quotes Jesus telling 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.” I’ve heard well-meaning interpretations of this text arguing that the crux of the issue is our prayer: we must pray for God to send workers into his harvest field, and then our work is done. This is not completely wrong, yet I don’t believe it captures Matthew’s (or Jesus’) intended meaning in a faithful way.
It’s easy to say a cursory prayer to God about “the lost” whenever we talk about our Impact Partners on Sunday mornings and Thursday nights or whenever we drive by that homeless guy outside of Sam’s Club. It’s easy to leave that concern for the “harvest” to God while we focus on ourselves. But, to quote a pastor friend of mine, “How many of us are actually kept awake at night by the thought that there are people who need to be reached with the gospel?” More often than not, I don’t want to answer that question.
And Matthew doesn’t let us off the hook either. We must remember that Matthew wrote his gospel in part to help form that fledgling community of faith that was the early church. While definitely an eyewitness to most of the material in his gospel, he ordered it in a specific way to help readers understand something about the implications of their faith. We see that at play in this passage. Immediately following Jesus’ command to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field,” Matthew records an entire section (a whole chapter’s worth) dedicated to Jesus giving his disciples specific instructions about proclaiming his message to the “lost sheep of Israel.” The sequence: 1. Ask God to send workers into his harvest field. 2. Here is how you are to be that worker you were praying for.
God absolutely calls us to pray for workers to be sent into his harvest field. But he doesn’t want us to stop there. He also calls us to be those workers. By accepting Jesus as your Lord (the one to whom you owe allegiance), you commit to “volunteer as tribute” again and again to be the worker sent by God into the harvest field in which he has placed you.