“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.” I grew up in eastern Kansas. The wheat fields of spring and early summer are an amazing sight. Across the vast expanse of acres roused by the gentler of the spring winds, a sea of wheat grass moves like an inland ocean.
These are the fields which inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write of “amber waves of grain” as she steadily approached the “purple mountain majesty” of the Rockies.
Image by Ralf Kunze
By Steve Hall
Jesus doesn’t usually mix his metaphors, though sometimes he comes close, as he does in this morning’s readings. He sees the crowds and his reaction is from the heart: “. . . his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep, whether in the singular or plural, is a common image in both the Old and New Testaments. The flocks were a significant part of the several cultures throughout the whole of the eastern Mediterranean region. However, sheep are not part of my life experience. Except for a trip to New Zealand a few years back, I don’t know that I ever saw a herd of sheep — a few blocking a country road in Ireland, but not a herd. What I know about sheep comes largely through various media. Even as a child, however, I was always moved by the picture of Jesus in his long white robes carrying the ‘lost’ sheep on his shoulders — a little guy, still cute and cuddly, I.e., the sheep, not Jesus. But the image that Jesus creates through envisioning the crowd as sheep without a shepherd properly fits those of that culture. It leaves me a bit cold.
On the other hand, the second part of Jesus’ metaphor finds a home in my experience — that’s the part where “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.” I grew up in eastern Kansas. When I was young the family spent a summer living in a farm community. The wheat fields of spring and early summer are an amazing sight. Across the vast expanse of acres roused by the gentler of the spring winds, a sea of wheat grass moves like an inland ocean. These are the fields which inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write of “amber waves of grain” as she steadily approached the “purple mountain majesty” of the Rockies. The potential harvest that Jesus would see in the crowds is a clear and lasting image from my youth.
Winter wheat, having been planted the previous fall, grows throughout the winter months,. It is frequently green even as snow still fills roadside gullies. As the cold gives way to the warmth of spring, the hundreds, thousands, even millions of individual wheat sprouts rise up together, reaching their full height sometime in May. Gradually, their color shifts, taking on a rich amber glow. Then even that seems to fade as a hint of white caps each slender stalk. The field is ready for harvest.
Have you ever seen one of these fields, loaded with an abundance of grain, left abandoned in the field. Sometimes a crop may be destroyed by blight or by high winds and heavy rain. But sometimes a crop may be lost because the fields are too wet for the harvesters — or the migrating harvesters have moved on to other fields because of circumstances that cannot be corrected — or the harvesting machinery is simply not available when needed. This is the scene that Jesus sees — a vision of people, ripe and ready to be ‘harvested’ and brought in to the Kingdom of God — but on the verge of being abandoned because “the laborers are few.”
I don’t believe the deficiency Jesus calls to the disciples’ attention is meant as a reference to those we might identify today as clergy and brothers and nuns. He looked at the crowd following him and saw what we might see in the crowds at a game or concert, in the traffic jam of cars at rush hour, or in the hopeful mobs celebrating the New Year in Times Square, or so many other places.
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.”
Jesus’ lament was specifically for the small number of true disciples who could announce the arrival of God’s everlasting Kingdom. From Matthew’s Gospel we would infer that he had only the Twelve. However, a similar account in Luke tells us that he selected seventy from his followers, presumably those he believed were open to the guidance of the Spirit.
If we look to the Church, the Body of Christ, today, we have to assume that Jesus’ sorrow over the lack of laborers is not about priests, brothers and nuns — those specifically called to serve the believing community — but rather for the lack of those who would claim to be his disciples but remain unwilling to give witness to the presence of the Kingdom.