We're used to seeing Jesus interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, responding to their needs, drawing out their faith, giving them comfort. But here we get an unusual glimpse into what he feels when he looks out at the multitudes of people around him. They are the lost sheep of Israel whose spiritual state is no different than the state of humanity in general. They are harassed and "thrown down" the passage says. They are lost, aimless, distressed, and without guidance. Jesus sees straight into their souls and he feels compassion.
Jesus' response may not come as a big surprise to us, but what is surprising is how loathe we are to imitate it. Perhaps we've been led astray by all the wrong examples. When a street preacher stands on a corner and preaches to the multitudes, what's his message? Condemnation, of course. He sounds like he views himself as standing amidst a filthy swarm of rats, urging them to get clean like him. Or when Christians band together against perceived outsiders--homosexuals, pro-choice advocates, liberals, secularist, atheists--our general attitude toward them is one of fear and suspicion, even loathing. We may understand that it's not right to have those attitudes toward individual people, but somehow we feel more justified in feeling that way toward them as a group.
Which is why it really is surprising that Jesus would feel compassion for the multitudes. He doesn't use the fact that they are an impersonal mob to excuse himself from feeling anything other than how he ought to feel toward each of them individually. And we know that what he feels isn't sentimental, the way you look at starving children in Africa on television while soft music plays in the background. Jesus knows this is the mob whose violence he would eventually succumb to. And he has compassion on them.
"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few," Jesus says. "Therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest." Here is the second surprising part of this passage. The harvest is obviously the multitudes, ripe to be brought in through the preaching of the gospel message. They belong to the Lord of the harvest. So why does the Lord ask us to ask him to send out workers into his own harvest?
For some reason the Lord of the harvest isn't interested in doing the work alone. He wants his workers to bring in the harvest. He wants workers to come forward so he could send them. He even wants to be asked to send those workers in the first place. At every step he wants to compel us to be involved with him, even though he could probably do it himself, even though he knows if he waits around for us he will always be short of help.
Why? Jesus is obviously not a pragmatist. He doesn't have an eye toward just accomplishing the work, but views the work of the kingdom as a process that includes us in the joy of his labor, which ultimately is a way of drawing us closer to himself. Beseeching the Lord to send out workers into the harvest can start to work in your heart, until you aren't just asking him to send someone else, but you're willing to be that someone who is sent. And it doesn't end there. So often you hear missionaries talk about starting out on the missions field focusing on the service they want to render to the Lord. But somewhere in the middle of it all, it becomes not about merely serving him, but knowing him through serving him. And by the end they begin to wonder whether knowing him was not the entire point of being called into missionary service in the first place.