This is a transitional section, very much like the section right before the Sermon on the Mount. It closes out the chapters on teaching and healing and opens up a new topic.
Jesus’ operation is pretty mobile. He got all over Galilee with his message, drawing crowds and healing people.
As he looked at the crowds, he saw the failure of the Jewish leaders to properly lead them and take care of them. Of course, they were a nation occupied by Rome, but that doesn’t relieve the leaders of responsibility. The picture of “sheep without a shepherd” is a solid reference to Old Testament passages where God is disappointed by how the people are being led.
Jesus saw that the people were harassed and helpless. Picture sheep lying around with no one to lead them to new pastures. Picture people who have trouble all around and no way out. Picture people who are downcast and have no hope.
Things haven’t changed much, have they?
Then Jesus shifts the metaphor from livestock to crops. He sees that a great deal has been done to bring the crops to harvest time. But now that harvest time has come, there are not enough laborers to bring it in.
The disciples are certainly the first wave of harvesters, but they are not enough. They are asked to pray for more help.
Truly, in 20 centuries we’ve made no more than a dent in bringing in the harvest. Some of the grain has rotted in the fields. Some of the harvesters have been distracted by other endeavors.
For one thing, we are no longer mobile like Jesus was. We have entrenched ourselves in fancy buildings and tried to figure out how to get people to come to us. That seems backwards to me.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.