Luke 10 opens with Jesus commissioning seventy-two missionaries to go proclaim the gospel and labor on mission in nearby places. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” Jesus teaches them. He then urges his followers to pray “earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (1-2).
I wonder if Jesus’ followers grasped his references to “harvest” and “laborers” the way we understand them today. Or, if questions even rose in their minds: Who exactly are the laborers? Is the harvest Jewish only? Are there boundaries to this harvest?
As the text moves on with Jesus instructing, praising God, and carrying some intimate conversations with the disciples, it is not until halfway through the chapter that Jesus takes an opportunity to expound on the mission that he introduced in the beginning of this chapter. In a scene that is often seen as a random, stand-alone story of Jesus’ teachings, the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is actually intimately tied with Jesus’ earlier commissioning of the seventy-two. While the entire scene between Jesus and the astute lawyer is built on the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus uses this question not only to expound on the nature of neighbor, but also to build on the relational aspect of the gospel mission. Loving our neighbor cannot be separated from the laborers’ call to work the field. In fact, it’s in the loving of our neighbor well that each of us live out the missional call of God in our fields.
- Framing the Answer to World Missions
For all the well-earned negative comments the lawyer gets, he asks a question none of Jesus’ disciples had asked. Jesus had sent out his 12 disciples in chapter 9 to do similar work, and yet they never asked him one question about the mission. Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy-two demanded some follow up questions. “Who is my neighbor? Who are the ‘grains’ in the harvest I am to love with the gospel?” The lawyer who knew very well the ins and outs of the Law, might have been presumptuous to think he also knew the answer, but unbeknownst to him, he asked Jesus one of the greatest questions benefiting world missions. To love our neighbor well, we need Jesus to help us see our neighbor. His curiosity, though selfish and self-serving, wasn’t belittled by God. In fact, Jesus proceeded in answering his question with a beautiful story, the core of missional interactions that impacts us deeply even today. Jesus was doing missional apologetics. While we can all learn to ask (better) questions for the good of the gospel, we shouldn’t dismiss or ridicule the ones who are asking questions about Christianity. In our divisive world, the framing of such discussions is an invitation to revealing the core of our gospel mission.
2. The Core of World Missions
The literary technique called “embedded stories” (a story within a story) moves the reader from the outside in. Like a frame bordering a picture, we notice it at first, but then we move inside to its core, for the picture holds a greater honor. The story of the questioning lawyer frames the core on missional commission in the nested story of the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
The parable lists 6 characters: the beaten man by the side of the road, the robbers, the Priest, the Levite, the good Samaritan, and the inn keeper. While the robbers caused all the trouble, it is the Priest and the Levite who are shamed for how they respond to the “half dead” man on the side of the road. As Jews and recipients of God’s Law, these two men should have known better about showing compassion and mercy in times of utter helplessness. God has been nothing but compassionate and merciful to the Israelites throughout the entire Old Testament history. It’s not that they didn’t care about the need in front of them; it’s that they saw this affliction and passed on the other side for fear of becoming “unclean” themselves. Their deep knowledge of God’s words kept them from the ravaged fields of brokenness, near-deaths, and injustice. The warning is clear to all believers: the only good theology is the practical theology.
But the shocking part of this teaching is that Jesus exalts the least likely of the group. Namely, he speaks well of the Samaritan, who, though he is of a disgraced race and religion in the eyes of the Jewish people, proves to love his neighbor better than the priests and Levites do. The innkeeper as well, though he is paid, shows mercy and love to the wounded man by nursing his wounds and feeding his strength. The point of these two characters is not that anyone, from any religion can work as a laborer in the harvest apart from Jesus. The point is that God will call redeemed laborers from backgrounds that will shock us. The least from among us will be called to labor his fields. The lowest from among us will join the mission. The call of living as a missionary in our world is not reserved to the academically, theologically, socially, economically astute and brightest. All the innkeepers and the Samaritans like me and you can join hands with Christ in his missional work among the readied-fields of this world.
God’s message of salvation will come through innkeepers, Samaritans, and everyone in-between. Once in Christ, the laborers’ hearts will learn to beat for every shape, color, and size of grain in the harvest. For just as the laborers reflect the heavenly diversity, so will the grains in the harvest. In choosing the Priest and Levite as the main characters who failed to show mercy and compassion, Jesus was, on the one hand, rebuking the hypocritical Jewish religiosity, while on the other hand, breaking their one-race barrier. Jesus makes diversity a main point of the story: diversity in the laborers harvesting and diversity in the harvest to be labored.
Jesus told this story to a people used to being the only ones chosen by God throughout the Old Testament. Their sense of specialness blinded them to God’s love for the nations, and diluted their view of their missional God. Any sense of utter superiority among believers (racial, cultural, national, political, economic, or social) is a repudiation of the gospel because it reduces God’s church to a monolithic clique. In telling the story, Jesus was declaring to his audience (and to us today) that his Bride (the Church) is far more multinational and diverse than the Jews believed her to be. The religious majority in Jesus’ time might have been terrified of the diversity before them and so they chose to cross to the other side of the road. But the merciful love the Savior has for all tribes, languages, and peoples made him take the cross upon himself so we wouldn’t fear eternal rejection. While there will always be one way to God—Jesus Christ—there are all kinds here on earth who are invited to live eternally with him.
There are at least five different locations mentioned in this parable: Jerusalem, Jericho, the road, the scene of the crime, and the inn. And while all these are in the Middle East, they all are versatile also. The mission happens where we live. Jesus preached and healed many as he traveled along to villages and towns. The fields Jesus was mentioning were not just fields in his immediate vicinity. They were fields of harvest stretching from “Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the Earth,” both in his time, and in the times to come (Acts 1:8).
Missions are done both on the streets, and in homes. There will be needs outside, and needs inside. The roads that connect homes and villages will always be visited by people. But so will be our homes. The inn in the parable is an example of a location that models hospitality. I don’t know if among the innkeeper’s job requirements was that of a doctor, nurse, cook, caregiver, protector, and so on. But he did it anyway. A missional home is a beautiful place of gospel hospitality to all who enter its doorway. Sharing the gospel is not just for the big cities and known locations: gospel sharing is for the places and homes where Christians live their dailiness, too.
The fields of our mission are not made of inanimate, nameless grains. Through the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” Jesus reminds each Christian that the global fields of missions are made of real people, with real problems, from real backgrounds, of real various descents and upbringings. In teaching about the face and value of neighbor, Jesus lays the gospel ground to missional living. We are taught to see each grain not as a worthless enemy, but as a loved neighbor.
The humanity of the gospel in our missional labor has everything to do with loving all our neighbors the way Christ loved us. The harvest is closer to us than we may think. In fact, until we learn to love our mission field like a neighbor, we will lose sight of the true gospel mission. The parable doesn’t change the gospel message, it expounds it. Christ leaves no one out and no place is unreachable. The plenty of the harvest reflects the rich diversity of heaven. We love our mission best when we learn to love each of our neighbors well.