Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Shepherds and Harvesters, Male and Female, in the Harvest Field

harvest plentiful mission Gospels seventy-two women pastors

Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” Matthew 9:35-38 (CEB)

Jesus had been busy travelling from town to town, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the gospel, and freeing people from the debilitation, pain, and misery of all kinds of ailments. But there were still more people who were lost and hurting and in need of help.

Jesus observed the crowds and saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd. The work was too much for Jesus and the Twelve. So Jesus turned to his disciples and, using an agricultural metaphor, he said,

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9:37-38 (NIV) 

Jesus wanted others to be involved and help him in the work of sharing and ministering the good news of the kingdom. Shepherd-leaders and harvester-evangelists were needed.

In Bible times, women, as well as men, were shepherds. And at harvest time, every able-bodied person was out in the fields, all working together, trying to bring in the harvest as quickly as possible. Everyone was encouraged to get involved. No one stopped a capable man or woman from harvesting. And, when he asked his disciples to pray for workers to be sent out into the harvest field, Jesus did not specify that they should ask for, and accept, only men.

Luke 10:1-2

After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” Luke 10:1-2 (NIV).

In this verse above, Luke uses the same metaphor about harvest workers as in Matthew’s gospel, but he uses it in the context of the seventy-two (or seventy) being sent out to minister (Luke 10:1-2). It is likely that there were women among the seventy-two.

Many women followed Jesus and travelled with him (Luke 8:1-3). And Jesus discipled and taught them as well as the men (Luke 10:38-42; John 4:7-26). Furthermore, Jesus trusted and valued women, and involved them in his mission (Matt. 28:9-10, cf. John 20:17-18; John 4:39-42).

Ben Witherington suggests that the short parable about sowing and reaping given in John 4:37-38 may be intended to imply that the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) is one of the sowers or reapers.
Ben Witherington III, “Women in the Ministry of Jesus,” Ashland Theological Journal 17.1 (Fall 1984): 22-30, 24. (Online source)

Only Men?

There are still plenty of people who are harassed, helpless, and without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36), and the harvest has never been more plentiful. Do we ask God to send only male workers? Should the church use only men as shepherds and harvesters?

The work of the Kingdom will progress more quickly and efficiently if men and women can share in Jesus’ mission. If they can minister according to their individual abilities and temperaments, as well as their God-given gifts and talents (cf. Matt. 25:14-30). Both men and women are capable of teaching and preaching the gospel, and of bringing hope and healing to the harvest field (cf. Matt. 9:35-38).

There is no real reason why capable women cannot minister as shepherds and evangelists. We must not let a restrictive interpretation of one or two Bible verses suppress and prohibit godly and gifted women from ministry. Instead, we should be training, encouraging, and promoting gifted women, as well as men, in ministry, as we continue to ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers. They are desperately needed.

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4 thoughts on “Shepherds and Harvesters, Male and Female, in the Harvest Field

  1. Hello Marg,

    God used your article to bring me comfort today. Thank you 🙂

    If I may ask, do you have a favorite story about Jesus and a woman or women? One that especially encourages you in the struggle against patriarchy?

    1. Hi Jenna, I’m so glad my article has comforted you.

      I have two favourite stories of Jesus and women.

      1. I love the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in John 20. It is a tender story. But, further, Jesus authorises Mary to tell the brothers and sisters that he is alive and that they are to go to Galilee. This is an incredibly important message! I’ve written about Mary Magdalene here, and have another article, Mary Magdalene and the Ascension, that I plan on posting on my website in early May.

      2. I love how Jesus stands up for Mary of Bethany when she anoints him before his crucifixion (Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-7). The men were disapproving of her actions, and were scolding her. Jesus, however, understood what she was doing. He accepted and affirmed her ministry. More than that, Jesus tells the men, “Leave her alone.”

      I love these words:
      “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a noble thing for me…. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body in advance for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:6, 8, 9 CSB; cf John 12:7).

      You might like my article on Jesus and women here.

      1. Thank you so much for the reply, Marg, and for the links. All wonderful! I’ll cling to those beautiful words: “Leave her alone.”

        Something that struck me in John 20 is when Mary tells the ‘gardener,’ “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you’ve put him, and I will take him away.” I–I!–will take him. She doesn’t say, “I’ll ask my brothers to take him.” She might have imagined carrying her Lord across her own shoulders, staggering under the weight, using all her strength. But she refused to let anything hinder her from Jesus–not her female body, her smallness, or “weakness,” nothing.

        Of course, she may have been particularly tall and strong as you suggest “Magdalene” might have implied, if a nickname 🙂

        1. Hi Jenna, I think Mary meant that she would organise for Jesus’s body to be retrieved. Not only would have Jesus’s corpse been heavy, it would have been disrespectful to sling his corpse over her shoulders. Jewish people were particular about how to handle a deceased person.

          There are few New Testament stories where we glimpse at how dead bodies were carried (Luke 7:11-17; Acts 5:5-10). In Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels we learn that Joseph of Arimathea asked for Jesus’s body after the crucifixion, and that he wrapped it and placed it in a tomb. Joseph was a wealthy man and, even though no one else is mentioned, I have no doubt he had people who helped him handle and carry the body in a respectable manner.

          “There was a good and righteous man named Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin, who had not agreed with their plan and action. He was from Arimathea, a Judean town, and was looking forward to the kingdom of God. He approached Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body. Taking it down, he wrapped it in fine linen and placed it in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever been placed” (Luke 23:50-53).

          John’s Gospel says that Nicodemus was with Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42), but I imagine other men, servants or young men (as in Acts 5), were brought along to help.

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