Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Working the Fields

Working the Fields
Matthew 9:35-10:7[1]
I’ve never worked in a field of corn or beans. I grew up in sorghum  and cotton country. So I don’t know what it’s like to work at de-tasseling a corn field or weeding a bean field. I have, however, had my share of manual labor. I spent many a day with my Order of the Arrow chapter cutting weeds at the Scout camp with a swing blade. And I had the blisters on my hands to show for it. I worked at a variety of Summer jobs during my education—including moving potted plants at a wholesale plant nursery, pulling parts at an auto salvage yard, and building and installing wooden playground equipment. I think what they all had in common with working the fields was that it was hard, hot, dusty work.
I don’t know if Jesus’ disciples had experience with working in fields. We know that some of them made their living by fishing with nets. They apparently worked at night, and I would think that hauling their nets could be back-breaking work. But I doubt that all of them had that kind of background. Nevertheless, I’m not sure they saw following Jesus as a path that would lead them to hard work. If they saw him as the Messiah, they may have thought that by joining with him they would have the privilege of ruling with him when he revealed himself. That’s a very different prospect from working the fields.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus clearly calls his disciples to work that he compares to that of a harvest. If you think de-tasseling is work, imagine what it would be like to spend the day cutting wheat and bundling it for gathering. The kind of harvest that took place in Jesus’ day was hard, hot, dusty work. You spent the day swinging a scythe, covered chaff from the wheat mixed with sweat. And you would work from sunup to sundown that way. There was nothing glamorous about that kind of work.
And yet, it’s clear that the work Jesus called his disciples to carry out was urgent. One reason is because the “harvest” they were to work had to do with people. And the people of Jesus’ day were, as Matthew’s gospel says, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The disciples’ calling to work the fields was urgent because the people needed someone to point the way for them. They needed someone to help them trust that God was there for them to comfort and deliver them. They needed someone to give them hope that they wouldn’t always be suffering under the oppression of the powerful. And so Jesus sent his disciples to work the fields.
Another reason why it was urgent for them to work the harvest was because no one else was doing the job. Jesus says it this way, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). That might seem perfectly natural to our ears, but in Jesus’ day, it would have sounded strange. Jerusalem was a hive of religious activity with the priests and Levites who attended the worship at the temple. One estimate suggests there were as many as 18,000 priests in that day.[2] There may have been as many as another 30,000 Levites. Then there were the scribes and the Pharisees, who taught primarily in the synagogues scattered throughout Judea. It doesn’t sound much like “the laborers” were “few.”
But part of what was going on here was that Jesus was criticizing the religious professionals of his day. Remember that Matthew says that to Jesus the people were like “sheep without a shepherd.” This was very likely a not-so-veiled rebuke of the priests and Levites, as well as the scribes and the Pharisees. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlines the many ways in which the religious leaders of his day were leading the people astray, or were simply oppressing them. But Jesus wasn’t the first to make the observation that those who were supposed to be caring for the needs of the Jewish people had failed to do so. Prophets like Ezekiel had announced their failure centuries before. Despite the fact that there were many people working in the religious centers of Jesus’ day, he could still say that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
The solution to this problem was to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). While that might seem a rather safe thing to pray, I think Jesus must have known better. It may be easy to assume that we can pray this prayer without having it really affect us. But the truth of the matter is that if you pray this prayer from the heart, it’s not a “safe” prayer at all. It’s very likely that this prayer is one that will lead you to feel compelled to say, “Send me!” That’s exactly what happened with the disciples. In the very next verses Jesus sends them out to do the work of the Kingdom he had been doing.
We may be tempted to think, as Jesus’ disciples may have been, that the “harvest is small and the laborers are many.” After all, there are churches in just about every town and scattered throughout our cities. This part of the country seems to have more churches per capita than anywhere else. Just about everyone you run into around here seems to already have some affiliation with a church. And yet, just as Jesus intended for his disciples to be moved to work the fields by praying for the Lord to send laborers to the harvest, so we too are called to engage in the work of the Kingdom. We might wonder how we’re supposed to do that. The answer is in the Gospels—Jesus sets the example; he shows his own disciples how do work the field by giving them a role model to follow. And his example still stands as the best approach to serving and working for the Kingdom in our day. As we follow his example, we can join all the many laborers throughout the ages who have answered Jesus’ call to work the fields.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/18/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.

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