The Harvest is Great!
Modern persons have problems with the asymmetrical symbols sheep and shepherd and father and children. This study of Matthew 6 was presented by Hans Weder, professor of systematic theology in Zurich and is translated from the German. The harvest is great though we are threatened by globalization, militarization and ramboization (cf Mies)
The Harvest is Great
Bible study on Matthew 9,35-38
By Hans Weder
[This March 1998 Bible study is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://bs.cyty.de/stjakobi/aufdwort/Ernst.htm. Hans Weder is a professor of systematic theology in Zurich.]
"And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. 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; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'"
The harvest is great. This is the decisive keyword of Jesus' great discourse to his disciples in Mt 9 and 10. The sending of the disciples to Galilee's cities and villages is central. Whoever reads this discourse immediately recognizes its grammar: Pray! Go! Proclaim! Enter the house! This is the grammar of the imperative. In this discourse Jesus defines the conduct of his envoys. His ambassadors go at this command. They do not come at the request of people. What Jesus charges them gives them an identity.
Jesus gives them something important on the way. Wherever envoys do not have their identity through the sender, their identity is determined by the receivers. A church that does not have its identity from Jesus, a church that does not seek its form with view to Christ, is always dependent on the forms in which others seek to press them. Such a church may understand itself as a social-therapeutic institution. However it can no longer distinguish between what is wholesome in truth for the receivers and what the receivers themselves imagine as wholesome. A church that is no longer oriented theologically or through meditation on the sending of its Lord will fall under the rule of the recipients. This church will either howl with the wolves who howl the loudest or be contra-dependent on them. It will mistake its message with the ideology in fashion for a certain group or will be negatively defined by such ideology. It will be a hyphen-church, a men's church, a women's church, an eco-church, all possible churches, but not the church of Jesus Christ.
When a church is not theologically oriented in Jesus Christ, its form will be forced on it. This church will be functionalized socially, politically or ideologically. It will fall into dependence on the receivers. However this dependence must be avoided since Jesus sends it, not the receivers. This dependence can be avoided if it remains entirely dependent on its Lord, the Christ. For the sake of the receivers, it must avoid this dependence. The receivers depend on a message that liberates them from the spell of their own thoughts and ideologies. Every society must be thankful for that church that resists being functionalized socially or politically. Since the beginnings of Christianity to the present day, the sending discourse has stood in the tension between its own identity and an identity assigned from the outside. Whoever is sent by Jesus comes from him; he comes on his command. Jesus' commanding word Go! Heal! Proclaim! goes far beyond what is necessary, the satisfaction of needs.
However no one can live from demands. Matthew knows that the envoys can not live from a mere command but depend on a ground supporting them in foreign countries. The supporting ground was created by Christ. Therefore Matthew sets a survey of Jesus' deeds before the dispatching discourse as we read in the first sentence of today's Bible text: "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity."
Jesus' works prepare the ground on which his disciples can reach out to people. Four fundamentals are emphasized: 1. He went about all the cities and villages. 2. He taught in their synagogues. 3. He proclaims the gospel of the kingdom. 4. He heals and strengthens. This is also the ground on which we stand. We can orient ourselves in his nature when we ask how we should reach out to humankind in his name.
1.Movement in cities and villages. Jesus stands in remarkable contrast to his predecessor John the Baptist in this local aspect, so to speak. The Baptist waited for the people in the wilderness. Jesus came into their cities and villages. At first this seems a merely outward difference, a topological difference of places. However life is always decisively marked by its context. The spatial difference between the Baptist and Jesus beautifully reveals their characteristics.
John called the people away to the wilderness and out of their everyday lives. Isn't this a topological picture of his demand of radical rethinking, a rethinking toward which people must move? Jesus went about in the cities and villages. He visited people where they actually lived. Isn't this a topological illustration of Jesus' proclamation, the God coming near as his theme, the God who literally touches people?
The Baptist waits in the wilderness. Doesn't he symbolize the waiting God who counts on the movement of people? Doesn't he depict the God who waits for people to approach him? Jesus takes the way on foot in villages and cities. Doesn't he portray the seeking God who looks for people to regain the lost?
The Baptist demands conversion as the first step in the approach to God, the baptism that saves people from the threatening judgment of anger. Jesus brings about conversion by bringing God near to people. This conversion and faith is supported by God's nearness, not approaching God (one could reflect on the consequences for the topology of church activities).
A fundamental difference exists between the preaching of John and the preaching of Jesus, a difference revealed in the topology. The Baptist proclaims the judgment to be escaped. In contrast Jesus preaches the gospel, the word that makes God's nearness into reality, as an agreeable reality since the gospel is the good word of God. In a somewhat exaggerated way, the Baptist preaches God as a possibility that throws people directly into shaking activities. On the other hand, Jesus allows God to become reality, a soothing reality accompanying people in calm certainty. Conversion is demanded by John through the possibility of destruction. Conversion is given by Jesus through the near reality of the creative God.
Jesus rediscovers an understanding of God that threatens to be constantly buried and often was buried to this day. God does not wait for you; he comes surprisingly even where he was not expected. God is not a ready possibility; he is an accomodating reality (still today it is much easier to proclaim God as a possibility than as a reality. The theological boom of ethics bears clear witness to this. The problem is only that no person is moved by possibilities.
2.Jesus teaches in the synagogues. This is the fundamental direction of his life. He turns to people and goes where they can be found meditating on God. By teaching, we often understand a theory remote from reality occupying people who have nothing better to do or accomplish. Teaching was something very different in antiquity and with Jesus. Teaching focused on what was central in life, on giving elementary orientation for life. Life is not understood by itself but depends on orienting references. That we dominate all the material of the world does not contribute anything to our orientation and is not an answer to the question how we should deal with all the commanded material and the commanding knowledge. Beside the knowledge with which we rule the world, reservation is necessary in which we become aware of the dignity of those surrounding us. This is part of teaching, particularly teaching in the synagogues where there is contemplation on the Creator to whose creative power I owe my life. Such teaching shows me that I can never give life myself but can only accept life. A possible way of life beneficent for me and all creatures is implicit in such teaching: life in gratitude.
Jesus teaches in the synagogues where fundamental orientation in life and the question of the holy and inviolable are emphasized. All who go into the world in his name live on the ground of this teaching. They should encourage reservation, gratitude for the created, and sensitivity for the inviolable. They should not speak about domination of the world but its appreciation. This should be their teaching where people meditate on life whether in the synagogues, churches television or in family rooms.
3.Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. Whoever knows the Gospel of Matthew knows immediately what this means. Jesus' proclamation is presented in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7): Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God (Mt 3,3). Blessed is the one with wisdom at the end because he focuses on God's wiser wisdom. You have heard: You should love your neighbors. This raises the question about the limits of love, about that limit where my love can end and hatred of the enemy may begin. But I say to you: Love your enemy! (Mt 5,43-48). When you love, you must love immeasurably because only boundless love is true love. Do not show your justice to people but show it only in the presence of God. The good that you do should solely benefit the needy, not yourself, your credibility or your honor in the eyes of people (Mt 6,1). Be not anxious about your life but see the great continuity of creation: Consider the lilies of the field, they do not sow or harvest and nevertheless are clothed more gloriously than Solomon in his splendor (Mt 6,25-34). What do you consume in self-sufficiency? Provision for you and others exists. Whoever merely hears and does not do my words - words emphasizing action - builds on sand. Whoever lets my word in his heart and then vaults into practice acts with his hands and feet (Mt 7,24-27). These are several examples for the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of the true age in which God is completely definitive.
The term "Proclaim the gospel" is the most general characteristic of Jesus' works. What Jesus said and did can be understood as "gospel", as a good word. Jesus expresses God in the form of the gospel. What resounds of God has the form of the gospel, the form of a message, the occasion for joy for everyone. When Jesus speaks the word God, it is a good word, not depressing terrible news plunging all the world into nothingness. God's crushing and rescuing power was stressed by Jesus. His life as a whole was a gospel - or it would not have been reason for joy.
Jesus in God's name gave a future to those who had no future, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the sick, the desperate and the lost. The rescuer alone gives a future; the destructive is the end of all future. Those who only hope to escape build on destruction.
4. Finally Jesus healed every sickness and every infirmity. Matthew first tells of such miracles in chapters 8 and 9, following the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus himself embodied the rescuer in an impressive asymmetry, rescue alone not rescue and ruination, healing alone, not healing and sickness, strengthening alone, not strengthening and weakening. The God whose nature is creativity or as it says in 1 Joh - the God who is love (1 Joh 4,8) - is reflected in this asymmetry. God moves entirely in devotion; he concentrates completely on rescuing. Therefore this God has a strange powerlessness, a powerlessness that one can also see with Jesus. It is the powerlessness of the receiver that nothing can be done against the rage of people, against the desisting of people from all foreign assistance.
Jesus could do nothing where he found no faith. In this powerlessness, the powerlessness of the God who is entirely creative and therefore powerless against all destructiveness is reflected. The Creator can do nothing against the destruction except constantly create the new and enable new food to grow. He has no power over denial since he cannot work with the means used by all the overpowering, with death and destruction forcing everyone to their knees not compliant to the powerful.
If Jesus is the true picture of this God, one could go a step further. This God in his whole onesidedness meets the destructive human rage by bearing it in his own body just as the Resurrected bears the wounds of the crucified for ever in himself. Jesus who prepares the ground for his envoys focuses entirely on rescuing, healing and strengthening. Therefore whoever goes out to the world in his name has the commission to heal the sick instead of making the healthy sick and of strengthening the weak instead of reducing the strong to dust. The same powerlessness that marks the healing Christ and the rescuing God inheres in this commission.
The healing of the sick and the strengthening of the weak are surprising effects of rescue and preservation. The New Testament calls these miracles. The rescue wherever it appears is always surprising as a miracle overcoming negativity. In modern times, we have problems with miracles. Therefore we accustom ourselves to interpreting Jesus' miracles as a sign for a theory of true faith. However the Matthaean Jesus resists this theoretical dilution. Jesus teaches in the synagogues. In the villages and cities, he does miracles. He surprises the sick and weak with new strength. These experiences always mean more than what they are. The main point is that they occur.
What more can be said about these experiences of surprising rescue for which one is thankful all life long? These experiences are related to what could be experienced at that time with Jesus. What can be said about the true miracle narratives in which a person tells of a preservation beyond his own strength and in which he rejoices and for which he is thankful? To be sure, the world can live without rescuing miracles. It can live without true miracle stories. The world can also live without Mozart but would be poorer. The world would also be poorer if it could not experience any miracles or tell any miracle stories. Miracle needs receptivity. Help needs those who let themselves be helped. The surprising needs persons with open minds.
Jesus' reality is the ground for all messengers sent in his name. However mission also needs eyes for the world. Verse 36 says: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd." Jesus has eyes for the multitude, for the harassed and helpless. What he sees moves him to compassion. He is seized by compassion. Only one who closes his eyes can remain a cool calculator rationally calculating and managing the world. But whoever has eyes for the misery of the world experiences a strange power, the power of compassion setting him in motion and bringing him near the harassed and helpless. Out of the cool calculator, compassion makes a passionate helper who may make mistakes but in any case turns to the needy. Compassion moved Jesus to devotion, to send out his messengers to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Compassion is the elementary bond of people to the distress of others, a trace of the Creator in the middle of the world.
In our times, compassion is scorned; we rely on justice rather than compassion. On top of that we avoid the condescension that sometimes is passed off as compassion and that is certainly wrong. What do we lose? We lose the elementary bond to the distress of the other. We lose that strength making us passionate helpers out of cool calculators. We lose the power bringing us near the harassed and helpless who are like sheep without a shepherd.
This picture of sheep without a shepherd has become foreign to us. The harassed and helpless are often not sought among the sheep without a shepherd. Sheep who do not need a shepherd any more become independent and autonomous instead of dependent. Our resistance against everything authoritarian - which is certainly legitimate - nearly bars the way to the ancient picture. Do we also bar the way to life? Do we barricade the way to understanding that has something to do with much despondency, that we have no one who accompanies and protects us, who cares and looks after us? Perhaps we must desist from the effort to gain the independence of sheep without a shepherd and instead focus our attention on the question where is the true shepherd, the good shepherd who accompanies us into true life and ends our dejection.
The picture of the shepherd of the sheep casts an interesting light on the opposition of God and the person. We are not God's partners or subordinates but the sheep for whom he cares like a good shepherd. The picture shows us that there is a third reality alongside authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations: the care that establishes a special relation, a relation that in no way infringes the dignity of those who are cared for and leads them out of the lonely fixation on themselves. What is depicted in the picture of the shepherd and the sheep appears elsewhere in the New Testament in the picture of father and children. This is also a picture that respects the asymmetry between God and the person and does not establish any dependent relationship or interdependence. Whoever is God's child does not need either to be appointed his partner or degraded to his underling.
Because Jesus has eyes for the harassed and helpless, he sends his disciples to them. The whole mission discourse is set under a pictorial or figurative saying (v.37f): "The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest!"
The harvest is a very ancient symbol, a symbol for the judgment over the nations. The harvest could be a picture for abundance and wealth, a symbol for joyful gathering and thankful offering. However the separation of weeds and wheat and the separation of wheat and chaff was long in the foreground in the picture of the harvest. Therefore it could only be a picture for the judgment on the Gentiles instead of a metaphor for the gathering of all creation on the last day. We do not know how these envoys understood this picture. We only know that Jesus sent them to gather, heal and rescue, not to separate.
The pictorial word suggests how the envoys could understand the age. Now is harvest time, the last decisive time. The harvest time requires workers. The sending of the messengers does not make a harvest time out of conventional time. When they set out on the way to humankind, Jesus' envoys adjust entirely to the quality of time determined by Jesus. Now is the gathering in time. This gathering is of crucial importance. So they understood time.
These messengers ask the Lord of the harvest for laborers. Making themselves into laborers is not in their power. They must go to people out of their own strength to begin the work of the harvest. Whoever reaches out to people from his own strength is often committed to separation instead of gathering, insult instead of healing and weakening instead of strengthening. The sending by a foreign lord, the Lord of the harvest anxious for laborers, is part of the sending.
According to Israel's religious symbolism, these laborers are God's angels who gather the just on the last day. Now Jesus' messengers do the angelic work. There is much to harvest but the laborers are few. The danger exists that much will be left on the fields. That motive drives these messengers. Nothing shall be lost; all people should be gathered in God's reign. No one should be overwhelmed by mission and forced into anything. Only the one who is ready should be gathered.
The gathering was actually limited to Israel. The worldwide grain fields were not yet in the horizon of Jesus' messengers. This restriction was only practical, not programmatic. These messengers were called to gather Israel for its God, all Israel up to the lost sheep, not only the worthy Israel. Who would not concentrate on those who are near if the gathering ad to be done with efficiency? Who gathers not only the beautiful shells on the beach or the valuable metals of the earth? Who can refuse the question where is gathering rewarding and where is it not worthwhile? Jesus' messengers can because the absoluteness of their teacher is repeated in their gathering.
The decisive moment is at the end of our text: the harvest is great, pray for laborers to bring in the abundance. The messengers have the same direction as Jesus. They are sent and reach out to the world. Jesus' followers are sent out instead of banding forces in the familiar circle. They are assigned to people instead of forming an elite who separate themselves from others. The movement that already distinguished Jesus is continued in this sending to humankind. The search for people, first of all the lost of the house of Israel, was characteristic for him. This search is now continued in the commission enabling Jesus' followers to become his messengers.
The disciples are sent out instead of waiting for people to come to the wilderness. They are not appointed to call from a distance like the Baptist but to reach out to people in their houses and cities. The call from the distance forces people to far journeys. God's rule penetrates the houses of people. This call in the nearness is charged to them: Peace to this house! God's rule is near! Therefore the motto is go to people without waiting for them.
In this sending of the messengers, the movement of the gathering God embodied by Jesus gains form, of the God who makes the gathering and the harvest for which there is still time into the main point of the Last Day, not the separation. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest...
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