I’ve been seeing something lately that’s always been there, and maybe I’ve even known it by another name, but it’s become fresh, more meaningful and more powerfully inviting.
It’s the impression of Jesus’ deep desire to enlist more people into partnership with him in the mission of freeing people, helping them, and letting them know how much they are loved by Heaven. In a hurting world desperate for answers but met only by empty religious duties and regulations, or a culture overflowing with overzealous morality, this mission is as vital now as much as ever.
It’s not about soul-winning. It’s not about Christian duty. It’s not about transforming society or even populating heaven. It’s about tapping into divine power to meet the needs of those around us. It’s about feeding those who are hungry — in a spiritual as well as physical sense — and easing the pain and hopelessness of people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Num 27:15-17). We see this in Jesus’ heart-felt plea to his followers, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mt 9:37-38). Immediately after saying this, he sends them out into the surrounding towns and villages with instructions to drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived. There were so many in need, the burden was too much for him to carry alone. And he wanted his closest friends to share in the task and with the same divine authority.
Like when Peter wanted to walk on water with Jesus, Jesus responds with characteristic encouragement: “Come on, try it out.” He is not jealous of his divine prerogatives; he isn’t stingy with his power — especially when there are so many people needing help. He WANTS us to jump in there with him, to take up the ball and run with it. So many are depending on us.
You can hear this invitation to partnership when Jesus is faced with a tired and hungry crowd of 5000. They followed him around, always wanting to hear more, see more, experience more of what he had to offer. And even when he was exhausted from the constant demand on him, he still had compassion on those who were clinging so desperately. When his protégés wanted to send them away, he replies, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). Instead of ignoring the need, Jesus delegates the responsibility to them.
When I read “they do not need to go away,” I hear him saying, “just because I’m tired doesn’t mean the work stops. I’m not the only one who can help. YOU do something about the problem.” Of course, his disciple panic. “How are we going to handle this? We only have a few loaves of bread and two measly fish.” You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he tells them “bring them here to me.” “Really? You’re still gonna make me do this by myself. Here, let me show you how.” Then he looks up to heaven, gives thanks to God for the resources (as small as they might be), and starts dividing the bread and fish into meal-sized portions.
But here’s the key: “Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.” Jesus enlisted their help. He brought his protégés into the miracle, as though saying “this is what you guys should have done.” He needed their help, wanted it, even if it meant more hand-holding. And his disciples distributed the food to everyone. With more coaching from the boss, they we able to meet the need of all those tired and hungry people.
And the result? “They all ate and were satisfied.” Catch this. This is the whole point of his invitation. When we partner with Jesus, when we take up his work — as he instructed, as he so earnestly desired — people are satisfied. They move from being needy, from being harassed and helpless, from being tired, desperate and hungry, to being content and fulfilled. It’s a restoring process, the on-going work of the Kingdom. And this is the work assigned to us. No one person can do the job by himself. Your local pastor cannot carry the weight alone. He cannot answer all the phone calls, he can’t visit everyone in the hospital, he can’t do all the counseling, or respond to all the requests for prayer. The work was never meant to be handled by a select few. It was always intended to be shared by many — by all of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers.
The situation hasn’t changed. The need is great, the harvest is plentiful, but there are always too few workers. Why? Usually because we feel unqualified. We feel like it’s not our job, or that someone else is supposed to do it. But this is not true, regardless of how inadequate we may feel. The disciples didn’t feel up to the task; they constantly doubted their own abilities to meet the challenge. And notice, Jesus NEVER gets on them for trying to do too much. He never criticizes them for wanting to help or even from being presumptuous enough to think they too could tap into divine power to handle situations. His rebuke only came when they were being lazy or when they lacked the faith. He attacked their sense of inferiority and inadequacy. He was trying with all his energy to equip them to take on this great task of helping the people, of freeing them from lack, from bondage, from powerlessness, from fear, from oppression, from spiritual hunger, and from blindness to their great value to the Eternal King. And he knew he could not do it all himself. His job was to train us so we could carry on the work. And it was the deepest cry of his heart: “send more workers!” When he saw all the hurting people, he was moved with compassion and stirred to help them. And he longed for many more to come alongside him and join the battle.
That urgent invitation was not limited to those earliest disciple alone. His instructions echo on to us as well. The need is still great. The harvest is still plentiful. People are still hurting, and there is still so much work to be done.
We need to hear the words of Jesus again, this time as a personal invitation to participate in the miraculous. The world is waiting for it. People are counting on it. “They don’t need to go away. You feed them.”