God's kingdom is often compared to a "harvest" in the Scriptures. It is an image that perhaps meant more to other cultures, in other ages than our own. However, there is still an important message for all of us in today's Gospel passage. We can substitute the word "church" for "harvest" and we can hear the Lord reminding us that it is by God's favor that we belong to this chosen community.
Jesus is moved to speak because of compassion for the fractured humanity that encircles him. The people are confused and dejected, like "shepherdless sheep" and they are expectant, like a field of grain ready for the harvest. But the mission of the Gospel is not just a response to a need. It is a gift from God and therefore the Father must be asked to send those who will do the harvesting. And so we see Jesus formalizing the call of the twelve who will be sent on this mission. But the folks that He chooses, themselves deserve the label "lost sheep." He chooses the awkward and fearful Peter, Matthew the tax collector, Simon, probably a member of the hot-blooded Zealot revolutionaries, James and John, who would argue over who was the greater; and the tragic Judas. The Gospel will be proclaimed by the very ones who desperately need it.
A harvest just doesn't happen - it requires work. "Church" doesn't just happen. It doesn't just pop up out of ground. All of the different components which make up our Church require work, support, planning, tender care - and, yes, patience.
"The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few. So ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest." But what does it mean to "labor in the harvest?" Jesus tells his disciples to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons." They need to be present to the people they encounter. They need to "minister" to them. And their mission goes far beyond the sick, the dead or the lepers. The message of the Gospel is meant to heal the hearts of those who are broken, to mend the divisions that drive people away from one another and to bring reconciliation and unity to those who thirst for justice.
Prayer is not enough. We need to cooperate and to respond. And we must not be afraid to speak out whenever those who shepherd us (clergy or not) give evidence of attitudes that do not reflect the spirit of Jesus. That doesn't mean grumbling and complaining in private, but rather to speak sincerely and constructively. It means taking ownership of the Gospel.
John XXIII and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council believed that the Church could better see the reality of the social and cultural phenomena of this world by reading the "signs of the times." We, as the community of God's people, must be a Church of responsible leadership and commitment, shared leadership between clergy and laity, and shared commitment to the work of the harvest. If we must rely on "the Church" to witness to Christ, we must do so because together we are the Church. This is our basic belief in sacramental theology - that as baptized and sacramental people we are empowered to be alive in the Holy Spirit and to transform the world.
Without healthy laborers we will be in danger of jeopardizing the values of our sacramental community, and will have watered down the urgency of the Gospel message. We will have forgotten that we are to be the voice and the presence of Jesus himself in this world and that we are to continue his same works of compassion and reconciliation.
Without cost we have received. Without cost we are to give.