Laborers for the Harvest

Thursday of the 14th Week in Ordinary Time: Hosea 11:1-4, 8e-9, Matthew 10:7-15.

All week, we are reading St. Matthew’s account of the great sending of the Apostles, the “Mission of the Twelve.” Today’s readings delve into the heart of the matter: these chosen 12, symbolic of the new tribes of the nation, are to institute a new reality of mercy made possible by God-become-man, Jesus Christ. Importantly, we receive the image that they are to be laborers for the “Lord of the harvest.”

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Disciples (mid 1800s), Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld | Creative Commons, courtesy the Pitts Digital Image Archive at Emory University.

The first reading from Hosea provides the necessary backdrop for what is an incredible deputization of the Apostles. Through Hosea, the Lord shares His troubled heart as a Father to wayward children: “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the farther they went from me.” What parent cannot identify with this? Children, wanting to establish their independence, are headstrong in their ideas and don’t want to be told what to do by their parents. At some point (pre-teen? teenager?), it seems that absolutely anything a parent might say is shunned and thrown back at the parent. God speaks in such an intimate, vulnerable, fatherly way here. When the Israelites embraced other gods, He registers a note of disbelief in their infidelity: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, who took them in my arms,” as if to say, “how could they possibly look to another?” He goes on to say, “I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks; Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.” Here He reveals just how much love and care He has poured into His Chosen People to bring them up as a model for all nations. And what He receives in return is their lack of acknowledgment of His works and love, even of Himself as the One and Only God.

How to react? This is the Old Testament, right? That means fire and brimstone! Well, we should be attentive, because the unrelenting message of the Old Testament is in fact God’s mercy. Yes, God’s justice, too, which He sends down upon enemies of the Chosen People and the People themselves at times, for the stakes are high! Nothing less than our redemption and salvation, our way back to Him in order to share eternal life, hangs in the balance. He is preparing the world for His Son and a new age of work and love to precede the end times.

But here, He gives us the example of being a true loving and forgiving Father. By recalling how He has been loving His People, He stirs that love within Himself once again. Recalling their infidelity and any anger this might stir up cannot hold a flame to the love that rises within Him. “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred,” He admits. “I will not give vent to my blazing anger.” Can we see ourselves in this? Can we will ourselves to react in this way, to live up to the model of Fatherhood given to us to many millennia ago?

God the Father (Padre Eterno), c.1640-50, Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) | Image from fineartamerica.com.

It seems impossible at times, doesn’t it? That’s why God says, “For I am God and not man, the Holy One present among you; I will not let the flames consume you.” There is such comfort in these words. First, we can be comforted by the presence of someone ultimately better than us in our midst, someone who can always overcome anger with love. Second, our God promises not to let us be consumed by flames, even when those flames are deserved. This is divine forgiveness. If ever there was a reason to use #Blessed, it is because our God loves and forgives us.

This is an important backdrop for the gospel reading because it provides the reason why such incredible things are happening; why Jesus tells His Apostles to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:6). The mission of the twelve happens in a direct line of action from God’s instructions to Abraham, Moses, David, and the many prophets. All of these interventions into the history of humanity, specifically with the Chosen People, are acts of love and forgiveness from God the Father, specifically to those who have sinned against Him. Remember the words we explored in the last reflection, what Jesus tells the Pharisees who criticize him for dining with tax collectors and sinners: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13). From a healing perspective this makes perfect sense, but let’s overlay the dimension of redemption history and realize that this is the loving Father speaking through His Son, the One who pities His people even while they turn their backs on Him. Thus, the middle sentence in the quote, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” is Jesus’s way of reminding them of the will and Person of the Father. He desires mercy in the world (for the sinners and those who disobey), not sacrifice (that is, blind adherence to ritualistic religion without one’s heart being converted). Jesus is the Father’s instrument in the world, doing this work of mercy and forgiveness. 

The moments leading up to Jesus’s sending of the apostles on this incredible mission are these: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Mt 9:36-38). What a metaphor! Jesus looks at the sick, the lame, the sinners, and the possessed and He is not gripped with sadness but instead with joy and determination for an abundant harvest. The harvest is plentiful — could there be a more joyful image for humanity in a pre-industrial society, utterly dependent on agricultural harvests? Jesus sees that work must be done, the very work He has been sent to do. But salvation requires work, labor. And here is the crux: we, the disciples of Christ, are called to be the Lord’s laborers. 

As Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes, “Man is not an inert bit of clay: for him to be restored by the Word means, in part, that he must help the Word restore him and all others like him” (Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol I, 534). This is an important response to those who wonder why God doesn’t just magically forgive everything and redemption is accomplished. One of the mysteries of our faith is that God desires our hearts, our active, freely chosen participation in the love and mercy He offers to the world. This is the juncture of faith and works, and sometimes we get lost here. His message is clear: He wants us to love Him and believe in Him, which is the faith part. But for those who stay here, just relishing their individual faith in God and waiting for salvation, they’re missing the point of this week’s gospel readings. He wants us to labor in the world. Jesus tells his Apostles: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.” This is work among our fellow humans, and it is important because Jesus comes to build a Church that is a community of faith. Leiva Merikakis explains, “Jesus is redeeming man, not as a series of isolated individual ‘souls’, but as a community” (Fire of Mercy…, 536).

But another way to get lost at this juncture of faith and works is to over-emphasize the works at the detriment of the faith. Social works and social justice are integral to the Christian life, as Pope Francis is keen to point out. But beware a few things: social works done without God front-and-center are, I would argue, nothing but a continuation of the idolatry committed by the Jews. While the goodness of the actions undoubtedly contain the seed of God and godliness, by not acknowledging God as the bearer of mercy, forgiveness, and all goodness, we — knowingly or unknowingly — are seeking to remove God from the world. Remember what we hear in Hosea today: “Yet, though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.” With the millennia of revelation and the great surge of Christianity around the world, we have no excuse not to know that He is our healer. Furthermore, the point of social works and social justice can never be to simply improve another’s life here on earth. Dignity in life and in one’s living and working conditions are important, but if that’s all we care about, we’ve forgotten our entire faith. Why do we believe in Jesus? Why was He sent by the Father? He tells us, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (Jn 6:39-40). The work that we are to do must have redemption and reunion with God at its heart. Faith must imbue our works with the Spirit of God, seen not hidden! “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt 5:14). This light of good deeds that we bring to the world must always point directly to God: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).

With these important reminders of the character of the work that we are called to do, let’s return to today’s gospel reading. Jesus calls his chosen twelve together and gives them extraordinary powers and extraordinary commands. He begins by proclaiming that “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is also translated closely as “the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” What might this mean, to say that the kingdom has come near, not that it is here already? This is fertile ground for theology, where we might begin to wonder what distinguishes the Kingdom of heaven from Christ Himself, a state of union from the presence of God. For Leiva-Merikakis, what Jesus means is that the Apostles “must literally be bearers of the Kingdom: they must make it happen there in the midst of men … A great deal depends on what the apostles do or do not do” (Fire of Mercy…, 537).

Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee (panel 6 of the Maestà), 1308-11, Duccio di Buoninsegna | Creative Commons, courtesy Web Gallery of Art.

And what are they commanded to do? “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons”! How extraordinary that Jesus is giving forth the power God the Father has given Him. This tells us much about the character of Jesus and the power itself. As we have noted in other reflections, all is found in the energy of the gift. God’s grace and mercy are not meant to be held onto or hoarded. They are always meant to be shared. This is overwhelmingly evident in Christ Himself, who not only pours His saving power on the world while alive, but gives us His Person in the Eucharist forever and His Spirit active in our lives. Thus, He tells the Apostles, “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” Those powers of redemption are not theirs, they’re God’s, and they’re just using them to accomplish His work. Again, they are laborers for the Lord of the harvest. 

As if a reminder of their utter dependence on God’s grace and power to do this incredible work, Jesus gives them a series of restrictions: no money, no sack, no extra tunic, no stick, not even sandals! What is the point here? I think it is in part a reminder of humility, that they are not to raise themselves up in the eyes of those they serve. Another aspect is undoubtedly a reminder of their dependence on God, not earthly things. Another piece may be the reminder of the fact that they are to labor, grinding the soles of their feet in the dust and cutting them on the rocks, much like Christ will be ground and cut on His way to the Cross. Suffering is part of the journey, but it does not define the journey in the least; quite the opposite: the joy of the abundant harvest dominates all. Finally, as Leiva-Merikakis notes, Jesus is teaching that “for the apostles, the mission is itself its own reward … Such a vocation and mission is nothing less than the realization on earth between Lord and apostle of the same relation existing between Son and Father in eternity” (Fire of Mercy…, 540).

He dispels their worry with the simple phrase, “The laborer deserves his keep.” In these words is the unshakable faith in the goodness of their mission and the will of God. There is so much good at the heart of their work that their needs will be taken care of; food and housing manifesting like metal drawn to a magnet.

John Sends Two Disciples to Jesus (late 1500s, published posthumously in 1593), Jérôme Nadal (one of the first ten Jesuits) | Creative Commons, courtesy catholic-resources.org.

This good is so overwhelming that the second half of today’s gospel finds Jesus speaking about it. He commands them to “look for a worthy person” in whatever town they enter. On the surface, this is quite presumptuous of an unknown traveler, and perhaps even oddly smacks of arrogance. Leiva-Merikakis sets us straight on this. He claims that this “becomes an act of simple humility on the part of one radically stripped of personal interests: ‘Who is worthy of receiving the presence of the One I bear?'” (Fire of Mercy…, 542). Again, the orientation must always be the Father; the free gifts born by the laborer are not his but something of incredible value, something one hopes to be worthy of receiving. This worth, then, is like a readiness of heart to receive God’s redemption and message. 

Thus, Jesus continues, “If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.” When I imagine the Apostles on their mission, doing this work, I see a nimbus of light and power accompanying them. I think of this as the peace coming upon a house where they are welcomed. I begin to see the need for depicting holy ones with halos in sacred art. How else to depict this tangible yet invisible power, peace, and touch of divine glory?

This is God come down to earth, investing the Son with His power, and His Son in turn investing His Chosen with that power. God’s power roams the world, healing, curing, raising people from the dead! And this is being done among Jews who God has been preparing for millennia to receive it. Whoever turns their back on this, well, this is not OK. As Jesus says, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” Such a harsh indictment in this case is simply justice. God has offered them mercy and justice over and over, now in the form of His very Son. At some point, we humans must accept His mercy and begin to do His work. We should rejoice to be laborers for the Lord of the harvest!

One last point worth mentioning as one who is discerning to enter the Dominican Order: this part of Matthew’s gospel had a profound effect on St. Dominic. It is perhaps more well-known that this passage was embraced by Dominic’s friend and fellow saint, St. Francis of Assisi. On St. Matthias’ day in 1208, Francis heard this gospel reading and exclaimed, “That’s what I want! That’s what I have been looking for,” and immediately he took off his shoes, abandoned his staff and confined himself to a single tunic, and set himself to fulfill the words of the gospel literally (paraphrased from First Life of St. Francis, by Thomas of Celano, 1230 AD). And St. Francis indeed founded an order radically devoted to the literal life as described in Christ’s mission for the twelve.

Yet, we can reasonably claim that Dominic, too, heard Christ speaking to him through this gospel and defined the destiny of the Order of Preachers in many ways according to it. Dominic’s focus was the heart of this mission rather than the literal deprivations Christ commands his Apostles. His early experiences with countering the Albigensian heretics in Southern France in 1206, ten years before founding the Order of Preachers, shows that this gospel was already ingrained in his approach. He was working with his superior, the bishop Diego of Osma, who explained to the Cistercians who were trying to argue against the heresies that they should abandon the expensive trappings, pomp, and dignity of their papal mission and instead follow the strategy of the apostles. In fact, the Albigensians were doing this and having a much better time gaining the respect of the people. This meant traveling on foot, without resources, and begging for food as they went. Diego and Dominic proceeded to demonstrate for the Cistercians how to do this and Dominic returned to spend years living in this way.

St. Dominic and St. Francis (early 1600s), Angelo Lion | Wikimedia Commons.

So while Francis sees a way to fundamentally change himself and save himself through this apostolic way, Dominic sees the way to serve and save others. Fr. Simon Tugwell tells us, “As early as 1220, at the first General Chapter of the order, presided over by Dominic himself, they solemnly wrote it into their constitutions that ‘our order is known to have been founded originally for the precise purpose of preaching and the salvation of souls, and all our concern should be primarily and enthusiastically directed to this all-important goal, that we should be able to be useful to the souls of our neighbors'” (Ways of Imperfection, 139-140). And so we can hear the echo of today’s readings in the foundation of the Dominican Order: “he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. … The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest … As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  

And let us not forget that St. Dominic himself lived this life, traveling constantly, sending out the brothers of his newly founded order immediately to the learning centers of Europe, often without money or pre-arranged housing. And my favorite, as related by Sister Mary Jean Dorcy, OP: “Dominic always traveled on foot with a little bundle on his shoulder and a staff in his hand. As soon as he was a little way out of the towns through which he passed, he would stop and take off his shoes, performing the rest of the journey barefoot, however rough and bad the roads might be. If a sharp stone or thorn cut his feet, he would turn to his companions with that cheerful and joyous air which was so peculiar to him and say, ‘This is penance!’ Such kinds of penance were a particular pleasure to him” (Saint Dominic, 57). Truly, this was a man who looked at the journey to the “harassed and helpless” as divine labor bringing in a plentiful harvest.

 

One comment

  1. Elaine Mozdy

    I want to say Amen! Th;is is what I feel is our work in this world. Above all to labor for the harvest. This is the way to judge our actions every day. As the nuns told us if we are not moving closer to God by our actions then we are falling back.

    Of course I am happy that you focused on God’s mercy in Jesus New covenant and left some of that ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament.

    I especially enjoyed hearing about St’s. Francis and Dominic. Saints lives are a particular inspiration to me and I love hearing about them in your reflections. They are the embodiment of the Message.

    Oh this email went beyond the allowed space. Hope you get it all. Love. Mom

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