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June 16, 2002
by Tony Grant
Jacob Swier, age 14, is a nomad of sorts. Every summer he wanders south toward Texas, travels west across the South and then angles northward through Colorado, Wyoming, eastern Oregon and Washington, until, by summer's end, he is near the Canadian border. He travels with his sister Jill, age 12, and older brother Justin, age 17. They are not homeless; in fact, Mom and Dad Swier organize and orchestrate their annual peregrinations.
They are custom harvesters, and they--along with many families like them--cut wheat for western farmers on a contract basis. Jacob Swier is only 14, but he is a pro on the combine; his older brother Justin is old enough to haul grain to the elevator; his sister Jill, along with her mother Pat, helps clean the RV campers and get the evening meals ready for the entire crew. It is good work, and the Swiers are a welcome sight to Western farmers with a wheat crop ready for harvest. The Swiers can do their job well because they understand who is capable of doing what, and assign roles accordingly.
And therein lies an important truth for those of us who labor in the fields of the Lord. Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Matthew 9:37). Jesus is looking for some custom harvesters. For a farmer, the worst scenario is to watch a harvest ripen and rot for want of harvesters. Of course, Jesus was not talking about farming.
Our lesson today from Matthew 9-10 marks a turning point in the establishment of the church. Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus himself is the focus of healing, teaching, and controversy. With today's lesson, the first commissioning of his disciples, others begin to assume some of the responsibility for the new movement that heralds the kingdom of God.
Verse 35 is a formula that Matthew uses to summarize Jesus' ministry in Galilee. It reads: "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.". The verse echoes 4:23 which reads "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people." Both verses appear to be Matthew's expansion of Mark 1:39--"And he preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and cast out devils." Most scholars think that Mark was written before Matthew and that Matthew uses Mark for a source.
It was customary for Jesus to teach in the synagogue, as well as to worship there (Matthew 12:9; 13:54; Mark 1:21, 23, 29; 3:1; and especially Luke 4:16), so the synagogue would be the natural place for his proclamation of the kingdom of peace.
The phrase of "their synagogues" in v35 is interesting. Obviously, Matthew does not think of it as "his synagogue. Matthew is identified in 10:3 as a publican/tax collector. The synagogues were run by Pharisees, and they would not have allowed a filthy Roman tax collector into a synagogue--so to Matthew, it was "their synagogue."
V36 mentions Jesus' compassion for the crowds. He regards them as "sheep without a shepherd". In v37, the passage abruptly changes from a metaphor based on animal husbandry (sheep without a shepherd) to an agricultural metaphor (plentiful harvest, few laborers). Jesus quotes what was likely a well-known saying about farming to describe the work of advancing the kingdom.
How Do the Laborers Harvest?
Question then: How are the laborers to go about harvesting for the kingdom? Jesus describes the method of the harvest in the words he uses to bestow authority on his disciples: They shall have power over "unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness" (10:1).
Notice that the original commissioning of the twelve disciples is limited to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (vv. 5-6). The Gentile mission has not yet been launched, and the disciples are given power to perform miracles in order to draw the attention of their co-religionists to the kingdom of God (vv. 7-8). They preach that the kingdom is at hand and they show that the kingdom is at hand by helping people.
Let me illustrate: A young mother was taking a course in sociology. The class was assigned to go out and smile at three people and document their reaction. The next day, she and her family were in a McDonald's on a cold, clear morning. She writes, "We were standing in line, waiting to be served, when all of a sudden everyone around us began to back away, and then even my husband did. I did not move an inch. An overwhelming feeling of panic welled up inside me as I turned to see why they had moved. As I turned around I smelled a horrible 'dirty body' smell, and there standing behind me were two poor, homeless men."
One of them smiled up at her, looking for acceptance. The second man fumbled with his hands, obviously mentally deficient and totally dependent on his friend. They had a handful of coins and bought only coffee because that was all they could afford. They had to buy something in order to sit down where it was warm.
Acting on impulse, she bought two extra breakfasts and took them to the table where the men sat. "I put the tray on the table and laid my hand on the blue-eyed gentleman's cold hand. He looked up at me, with tears in his eyes, and said, 'Thank you.' I leaned over, began to pat his hand and said, 'I did not do this for you, God is here working through me to give you hope.'"
Now it strikes me that that young mother exactly fulfilled the commission that Jesus gave the disciples. She saw some people in trouble, she helped them, and she witnessed to the presence of God in that help. She was a laborer for the harvest.
But I suppose the best model for kingdom harvesters comes from the same metaphor that Jesus is using--from agriculture. This is a story that we hear often. It is both sad and inspiring. Men and women are injured or killed on the farm. Their crops are left standing in the fields. Neighbors and friends gather to bring in the harvest for the widow and children. These neighboring farmers know what they need to do. No discussion is necessary. Moreover, they have no time for niceties. After all, their own fields needed attention, and when the crops are ready for harvest, the crops are ready for harvest. They harvest the grain, take it to storage elevators, give the widow the receipts. They do not want any thanks; They almost seem to resent thanks. But they certainly are the kind of laborers for the harvest that Jesus wanted.
Let us talk then about what it means to be a laborer for the harvest. The experience of the Swier family, together with Jesus' remarks about the harvest provide some insights into the urgent task that many Christians today prefer not even to identify by name, but designate instead as simply the E-word: evangelism.
Jesus is not looking for a professional class of harvesters. He is searching for those who will answer the call and make themselves available. The Swiers are not special people. They are not dust bowl, Grapes of Wrath, refugees. Dad Swier is no Henry Fonda/Tom Joad piling his family and belongings in a make-or-break Model A, winding their way to the promised land to pick crops by hand. These are organized, mechanized, technologically adept and business-savvy moms, dads, brothers, sisters and hired hands making a respectable living out of three or four months of difficult skilled labor. The Swiers, like most custom harvesters, own a real home, send their kids to college and claim that rural America is a good place to live and work. They are ordinary folk, like the rest of us, doing an extraordinary work.
And if we are wondering if God wants us to work people-fields, harvesting souls, we need only to ask ourselves if we are alive and breathing. If we are, we are called. Every Christian is called to be a laborer for the kingdom. Unfortunately, when Jesus calls for disciples, he often finds that they are off in a secure and undisclosed location doing something else. We can always find an excuse not to do anything for Jesus. We are good at plausible deniability. That reminds me of a poll of Harvard University students after September 11. Of the students polled 69 percent supported military action against the terrorists, but only 38 percent said that they would serve in the armed forces if called to duty. In other words, somebody ought to do it, but not me. Unfortunately, that is the way most people feel when Jesus starts looking for laborers to get in the harvest. Somebody ought to do that--but not me. Jesus says, It is me. It is only me.
Go To the Harvest
Another thing. Although the harvest in our text is "plentiful," sometimes the crop just is not there. By the end of last summer, for example, the wheat farmers in Kansas were in big trouble. The drought was so bad that they plowed under their plants and profits. So Mom and Dad, Justin, Jacob and Jill moved on to fields that were ready.
Application: The Bible does it say that the crop is supposed to come to the harvester. We do not just open the doors of the church and expect a crop of visitors to walk through. Part of our call is to seek the harvest.
The harvester goes to where the crop is. This is a variation of Jesus' "Evangelism-for-Dummies" comment back in MT 9:12: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." He then says pointedly: "Go and learn what this means." He eats a hamburger with the tax collectors, and the Board of Deacons complain. Jesus responds: "Hello! Don't you get it!?" His exact words are: "For I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (9:13 KJV).
Choose a Crop and Concentrate
The next lesson Jesus, Justin, Jacob and Jill teach us is that success happens when we concentrate on the right crop for our skill set. Choose a crop and concentrate on that crop. Some custom harvesters focus on wheat, while others choose corn, some soy, and some beets. Each has specialized and extremely expensive equipment built to harvest a single type of crop. You can not harvest beets with a combine built for wheat, or vice versa. So, choose a crop and concentrate. Nobody appeals to everybody. Nobody is called by Jesus to go to all the world. We all have a specific call--just as in our text the disciples had a specific call. What we need to do is to figure out what our call is--the kind of harvest we are called to. In terms of people, we often put it this way. Who do I connect with?
John L. Allen writes about an incident that happened to him. He says,
I recently attended a party at the behest of my wife where, I was assured, the spouses of her friends and coworkers would keep me company. Naturally, I ended up as the only "significant other" present (except for the guy who lived in the house where we gathered, and he had secret places to hide). Despite my wife's best intentions, I was soon abandoned to fend for myself.
Salvation presented itself in the form of our host's 10-year-old son, who had plopped down in front of the family TV set. I sidled up to him and asked, "You into The Simpsons'?" We connected immediately, sharing stories of our favorite episodes until it was time for that night's reruns to come on. There we sat, a balding 33-year-old and a kid not yet in junior high, bonded through our mutual immersion in Simpsons creator Matt Groening's fictional universe.
Reflecting on the experience later, I realized how emblematic it was of life these days. I needed a conversation-starter, a topic that would cross generational bounds and awaken interest in individuals otherwise disparate in life experience. In earlier eras, I suppose, I might have asked about the harvest or our favorite ways to propitiate the gods, but in 1990s America I went with the obvious: pop culture.
Allen found that pop culture gave him a connection with a ten year old boy. And we can see that such a connection--given time could produce a friendship--and for a Christian a friendship naturally means that we can talk about God. Now it may be that pop culture is not our thing and we could not make that particular type of connection. So all right. Who do you connect with?
Let us look at another thing that Jesus did in the text. When he was choosing his laborers, he made sure he was picking a combination of men who could identify a crop, who knew what tools to use, who recognized ripeness and were ready and realistic. In other words, Jesus used a mission strategy. He had a strategy for evangelism. This is just common sense. We need to know what crop, what kind of people, what demographic we are going after. Is it soy or beets?
One way to do this is to ask obvious questions, such as: Are we in a community of seniors or are we a suburb of young, busy families? Are we an aging farm community or a struggling mill town? Are our people employed or laid off? Who are we trying to reach? What is our crop? Before we laborers can harvest we need to know exactly what, or who, we will be reaping.
This is why we can not use the same pickers for all crops. Say we want to invite little old ladies from Divine Savior Nursing Home to church on Sundays by offering a free ride service. We do not, do not give the job to a seventeen-year-old with jewelry spiked through navel, nostril, tongue and ear who is driving a custom low-rider Camaro with fat tires and a bass on his CD stereo that kills birds at fifty feet. He may be a responsible driver, and a good Christian kid, but one look at his car and those sweet little old ladies will never get in.
God gives each one of us special skills, too. Not everyone can pray like Peter or preach like Paul, or drive a combine, or cook food worth eating, or counsel the dying, or give aid to the poor, or reach out to the elderly. So we need to identify who we connect with, who we can minister to.
Finally, custom harvesters work hard and fast. Their window of opportunity is limited. Jacob will be on the John Deere after dark with headlights flooding the field in front of him in order to get the job done. He has a sense of urgency. The crips have to be harvested now. We find that same sense of urgence in Matthew. We can hear it in the voice of Jesus: "The harvest is plentiful." The need is urgent. The time is now. Amen.
"Custom harvesters," Road Trip America, roadtripamerica.com. Retrieved December 12, 2001.
Christian Science Monitor, Midwest Journal, csmonitor.com. Retrieved December 12, 2001.
Hoffman, Emily. "The Swiers family - custom harvesters." Sodbuster, an online magazine, sodbuster.com. Retrieved December 12, 2001.
"Harvard's reluctant warriors," The Washington Monthly, December 2001, 22.
John L. Allen, Jr., "Simpsons, pop culture and Christianity," National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998.
Coy Wylie, "Stewardship ... laborers or loafers?" Contents reprinted with permission from Coy Wylie, Cornerstone Church. August 30, 1998, cornerstonebc.com.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 8/13/02