Sent Into the Harvest

By Peter Robinson

The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

When I was a child, my church regularly did mission trips with groups of people from the church. I don’t mean overseas missions. We did missions to other churches in our part of the world. There are two mission trips I remember in particular: one to a church in Montreal and another to the north shore of the St. Lawrence above the Gaspe.

A group of people (20-30) would go out from our church to another church or, in the case of the north shore, to a few churches. It was always a rather eclectic group of people, including some new Christians, but we all wanted to be there, we all wanted to go. And that sounds a lot like Matthew 11:25-26, after the people sent out have returned. Jesus prays and says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

We were not wise or intelligent or mature in our faith, but for a week or even just a weekend we would meet with people and have a lot of events to encourage the local church and to help them engage with their local community. Those were great experiences for me, even formative. When I was a teenager, people told me that when I grew up, I was going to be a minister just like my father. At the time I thought they saw something special about me — a calling or particular gifts. I realize now what they saw was my excitement at being involved in events like these missions.

The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

This passage is filled with urgency. I love the way it starts: Jesus tells his followers to pray to God, the Lord of the harvest, to send out laborers for the harvest. And then before they have a chance to start their prayer meeting, praying for someone to go, he says go on your way — don’t take extra clothes or food, don’t stop and talk to anyone on the way, just get out there: The urgency of the harvest.

When a crop ripens on a farm, when the harvest is ready, whether that is wheat or apples or grapes for ice wine, there is an urgency to get the crop in, because if you don’t it will quickly spoil. The wheat will get flattened by wind and rain, the apples will fall from the trees and rot, the frozen grapes will thaw and spoil.

A farmer knows that you need to get out there and get the job done before the crop is ruined. That sense of urgency is compelling. But 2,000 years down the road, it is a little difficult for us to feel the same sense of urgency. If anything, the Church, particularly in Canada, feels a little tired and discouraged. And harvest? What harvest?

The situation in Canada has changed, even since I was a teenager. All around us we hear about the decline of the Church. We are told that Canada is no longer a “Christian” country, if it ever was. Most people are indifferent to the Christian faith, or openly antagonistic. Jesus couldn’t have had 21st-century Canada in mind when he said: The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

So, it is understandable that we might not see the immediate applicability of this passage. Until, that is, we take a second look. The taut cord of urgency in this mission is grounded in need, the need of the people. The urgency is compassion. The urgency is that the people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Whether people are aware of their situation or not doesn’t change the urgency — if anything, their lack of awareness intensifies the urgency.

When Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” he didn’t mean that the fruit was falling off the trees. He didn’t mean that it was going to be easy, that all his followers had to do was get out there and catch the falling fruit. In fact, it was just the opposite.

Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” It is another powerful image: a flock of sheep being herded, by their shepherd, into the midst of a pack of wolves. The wolves aren’t going to cozy up to the sheep or lie down with the lambs. They are going to be hunting, they will be wreaking havoc; it will be a slaughter.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. There is no pretense here that it is going to be easy. A little later in Luke 10, Jesus warns his followers what to do when people reject the gospel, because they are going to reject the gospel. Jesus expects people to reject the gospel, to reject him. Where did we ever get the idea that mission should be easy?

The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

This is not your typical harvest. It is human beings — cantankerous, independent, consumer-driven, self-sufficient human beings. And yet they need the gospel. We are a society, a country, a world, that needs the good news of the kingdom, peace and healing, whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. Jesus sends his followers out with urgency because of his compassion: compassion for those who are lost, lest their lives be ruined. That is what drives this urgency.

And that brings us back to who is being sent out: this sending of the 70 echoes the sending of the 12 in chapter 10: 70 followers of Jesus are told to bring God’s peace, cure the sick, proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. Basically the same task he had given to the 12 in Luke 9, only now it is a much larger group of people.

Scholars suggest a couple of different reasons why there were 70 or 72 who were sent out. One option is that the 70 represent the leadership of Israel — that would fit with Numbers 11, when Moses appointed 70 assistants. Another thought is that this is a reference to Genesis 10, where the number of the nations of the world is listed as 72. That would suggest that we see here the claim that God’s mission is to the whole world. This latter suggestion resonates with Luke’s concern for the Gentiles, and would in turn prefigure the universal mission in Acts. In what way is the number 70 significant? It is an interesting question.

But my question is, how in the world did Jesus find that many people to send out to proclaim the gospel? Can you imagine how long it would take to properly train 70 people? When we speak of Jesus’ followers, we think first of the 12, and then more broadly of the crowds that showed up for different events; a few leaders and lots of followers, similar to most of our churches today. But here we have 70 people sent out on mission, sent out as evangelists or missionaries to bring God’s peace, to heal the sick and to proclaim the kingdom of God. It is extraordinary, it is risky. Does Jesus know what he is doing?

We are much more careful. Before someone is sent out, they need a long process of training and developing. They need to have reached a certain level of maturity in their faith before they start thinking about ministry. After all, we don’t want them to reflect badly on the gospel. And we don’t want them to be disillusioned. We know better than to send out people who are not yet fully trained.

But Jesus sends them out, and the sent come back excited (Luke 10:17). Now we could write off their excitement as simple naiveté. After all, they haven’t really experienced how difficult ministry can be. Give them a bit more time and some of their newfound excitement will wear off — it always does. Then they will wish they had taken it a little more slowly, they’ll wish that they hadn’t been as precipitous in getting involved in ministry. We have learned through hard experience that ministry is best done by the experts, preferably the officially designated leaders in the church. There are good reasons why we should be careful and take our time.

And yet the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. The urgency in our world, in Canada right now, means that we can’t sit back and wait until people are fully formed or fully mature before they are sent out, before we start talking about mission. Indeed, the very real question is, can Christians grow up in their faith until they have gone out into the world, until they have tried to say something to someone about the kingdom of God?

The 70 came back excited — excited about God, excited about their faith. Yes, they still had a lot of growing up to do, there is no question about that. We still need theological colleges. But they tasted, they experienced the power of the gospel. Perhaps that is the very thing that helped them “grow up.”

And maybe that is why so many people in our churches never grow up. They have never been sent out. We expect them to grow up in their faith, and then they will be ready for a ministry position. We invite them to be part of small groups or courses and get them involved in church work, but we don’t send them out with the gospel. And they don’t grow up in their faith. The sending of the 70, for that matter the sending of the 12, tells us that mission doesn’t follow maturity: they were not wise, they were not intelligent, they were infants and they didn’t yet have the Spirit after Pentecost, and yet Jesus sent them out.

The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

Some good news for us today: We don’t need to go on a mission because the mission has come to us. It is all around us — our neighbors, the workplace, our families. As we together live out the gospel in word and deed, we will come to know the gospel, we will come to know Jesus’ heart for the world, and we will grow up in our faith.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Robinson is academic dean and professor of proclamation, worship, and ministry at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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