The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. It might be a little harder than usual this year for us to relate to the harvest image that Jesus uses here. In the wake of the floods and heavy rains this spring, so many fields have been planted late or not planted at all that it’s hard to know what this year’s harvest will even look like.
But of course, that’s not the kind of harvest that Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading for today. Instead of a harvest of corn or beans, Jesus is talking about gathering in people; he’s talking about those who are ready to receive God’s word and be gathered into the kingdom. He sends his followers out into the field – the mission field – to bring this harvest in. And you’ll notice that he gives them some unusual tools for doing this. What does he send them out with?
That’s right – basically nothing! No purse, no bag, no sandals. They are barefoot, with no money, no food, no change of clothes, nothing – they have to be totally reliant on the hospitality of others. They have nothing to give people in return – nothing except for the peace of Christ and the word of God. And without a bag, they can’t even receive anything from these people either, except for their hospitality and their open ears.
Jesus warned them that it would be like this in our gospel reading from last week. And today we are picking up right where that reading left off. We are still on the long journey to Jerusalem from Galilee. And Jesus seems to be sending out these 70 disciples ahead of him like a vanguard – he sends them ahead to places that he himself intends to go. Now this gets really interesting when you think about what the region ahead of them actually would have been.
Let’s see who my bible nerds are. Who knows what region you have to pass through to get from Galilee to Judea, where Jerusalem is? Any guesses?
It’s Samaria. Samaria lies between Galilee and Judea, and Jesus and his followers would have had to travel all the way across it to get to Jerusalem. So the people to whom they are proclaiming the good news of the kingdom – the people whose hospitality they had to rely on – they were not other Judean or Jewish people. They were Samaritans!
Now, this sermon is not going to be long enough to cover the whole complicated history of Jewish-Samaritan relations (thank God!). Suffice it to say that even though they had shared roots, this was functionally a cross-cultural mission. There was real tension between Jewish and Samaritan people. And it’s hard to imagine that any Samaritan would have listened to anything a bunch of Galileans on their way to Jerusalem would have to say. This was probably not the ministry that Jesus’ followers envisioned when they signed up to follow him, nor were these the people they probably imagined that they would evangelize.
This part of this story feels pretty relatable for the church today. The ministry laid out before us is often different from what we might have imagined or expected it would be like. So much is changing in the world, and in our communities. There are so many options competing for people’s attention, and fewer and fewer people are choosing church – and our congregations are shrinking. Meanwhile, our communities are growing, but not with the kind of people we expected. It can be intimidating for us to think about trying to connect with people across cultural and generational boundaries – to connect with Samaritans, if you will. And it’s easy for us to get discouraged thinking that people just don’t seem to care anymore about what the church has to say. It can be hard for us to look out at the field and even see the harvest that Jesus was talking about.
But it’s helpful for us to remember that the 70 returned from their daunting mission bursting with joy. They had gone barefoot and bagless into Samaritan territory and ended up being completely surprised by how ready people were to embrace the news of the kingdom. And when we look at our own increasingly secular world, the truth is that there are lots of people out there longing for what the church has to offer. In an age of increased mobility, rapid technological change, and increasing isolation, people long for stability and connection to a loving community. They long for moral and ethical guidance and to feel like they are part of something greater than themselves. They just might not realize that the church is a great place to find these things.
Jesus is still right – the harvest is certainly plentiful. And he is also right that the laborers are few.
Jesus’ laborers were definitely few. His first followers were a small band of disciples from an insignificant people living under the control of the Roman Empire. They were nobodies. And even though this long, dramatic journey that they take to Jerusalem takes up over ten chapters of Luke, the actual geographical distance they cover is roughly the same as the distance between here and Omaha, or even a little less. In human terms, not a huge impact.
But the smallness and the simplicity of this mission and its missionaries serves a purpose. It underscores that this is not a simple human mission. It is God’s mission. It is God’s power working through Jesus’ followers that makes the Word take hold and spread the way it does. And the smaller and humbler the numbers are, the greater the glory is for God. When the 70 return to Jesus rejoicing at how successful their ministry has been, he himself reminds them of this – that they have been given power and authority because they have become part of God’s mission.
This is God’s work, through and through – and we participate in it too. It is God’s harvest that we are called to help gather in, and God is the one who sowed it in the first place. Even we, the laborers, we belong to God as well. It’s good to remember this whenever we feel anxious about the future of our ministry. Ultimately, it isn’t actually “our” ministry; it is God’s ministry. And when we feel overwhelmed by the harvest work to be done and worried that the laborers are too few, we are reminded that the fate of this ministry isn’t in our hands – it’s in God’s hands. God has chosen us to carry out this ministry in this time and at this place. God has given us gifts and the gift of each other for carrying it out. And we can trust that God will continue to give us all we need to tread on snakes and scorpions, to share the good news of the kingdom.
It’s still challenging work, it’s true. Harvesting is hard work, and the world has changed a lot since Jesus’ time. Heck, it’s changed a lot just in our lifetimes. And these changes often force us to adapt and reconsider a lot of the old, traditional ways of being church – things like how to do Christian ed or evangelism or worship or visitation or whatever. And that can feel like scary, uncharted territory.
But change also opens up new opportunities for being creative in doing God’s work, for being and doing church in new ways. I mean, really, it’s a lot like literal harvesting – harvesting practices have changed so much over the years because of developments in technology, greater understanding of agricultural science, changes in family farming, and so on. Church is one more place where we can be innovators, finding new and fresh ways to proclaim to others that the kingdom of God has come near. Being church in the 21st century undeniably brings unique challenges, but it also presents us with some unique opportunities.
And as much as the world has changed, at least two things have not changed. Firstly, and most importantly, God has not changed. God is good. God is with us and gives us what we need, whether the harvest is a literal one or a metaphorical one. The mission is in God’s hands – as we are – and we can trust God to see us through.
Secondly, we are called and sent out to participate in this work. We are called to step outside our walls and outside our comfort zones, to go barefoot and bagless out into the mission field. There’s nothing passive or inactive about this harvesting work. We’ve all lived in a farming community long enough to know that if you just sit around in the barn all day waiting for the harvest to bring itself in, you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time!
God has given us an important part to play in this ministry. So, to quote some of what Paul writes to the Galatians, let us not grow weary in working and doing what is right – for God is with us and we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.