Laboring for the Master’s Harvest

Saturday in the First Week of Advent: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26, Matthew 9:35–10:1, 5A, 6-8.

I have reflected in the past on the use of agricultural metaphors in scripture (this list, particularly the first three), and today’s readings provide another opportunity to do so. The backyard gardener in me loves these metaphors – there is something so wholesome, so fundamentally human about working the land and then transforming its products into food and drink. The harvest, in particular, connects to something even deeper – life itself in those plants, which has reached a ripeness that yields fruit; this is the germ of the new generation, whether eaten by humans or plowed back into the earth for next year’s crop.

The Harvesters, Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1888-1889) | Creative Commons, courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

I’ll get philosophical here and claim that the fecundity of Creation reaches an inflection point in the harvest. OK, two $5 words there. Fecundity, meaning all of the potential fertility of a system. Inflection point, which my mathematician wife would happily define for us as the point on a curve when it changes concavity (convex to concave or vice versa) – imagine the very crest of a wave. If life on earth has a cyclical nature, then harvest is one inflection point while germination is its twin. 

The entire cycle of germination ⇔ harvest is graced by the Creator, as Isaiah tells us today: “He will give rain for the seed that you sow in the ground, And the wheat that the soil produces will be rich and abundant.” But let’s not confuse this with “praying for rain” as in pagan nature worship. Isaiah is talking about God’s providential grace, His purposeful blessing of His People that is outside of the natural course of random weather patterns and such. This is a promise of something special and new: “No longer will your Teacher hide himself, but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher.” Images of nature and harvest in scripture always serve as signs of something greater. Thus, Isaiah promises with apocalyptic language, “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun and the light of the sun will be seven times greater … On the day the LORD binds up the wounds of his people.” Once again, let there be no doubt that this is the promise of a great intervention on the part of God for His people. And, as we have reflected nearly every day of this first week of Advent, that great intervention is Jesus Christ, God made flesh.

So, what do we make of these agricultural signs once the promise is being fulfilled? 

As he works his ministry of healing bodies and souls, Jesus has compassion on the “harassed and helpless” crowds (or “troubled and abandoned” as the lectionary states). He tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The harvest – the inflection point where the ripeness of Creation is given over – is no longer portrayed as a harvest of wheat but a harvest of souls. The master of the harvest in the Time of Promises (Old Testament) would have always been a human, harvesting food for the good of the human community. But now, Jesus explains that the master of the harvest is God Himself, and what is being harvested – the ripe fruit of Creation – are souls in need of saving.

This is a fairly huge point. Jesus has compassion on a particular group: the helpless, abandoned crowds of troubled people. These poor, sick, demented, sinful people are his ripe fruit! He does not send the apostles to go harvest all the priests and Pharisees who uphold the Mosaic law down to the tiniest restriction. Jesus sees with the eyes of the Father, past the sin and ailments to the soul. This is the great message of hope that Jesus brings us: we are all children of God, all worthy to be saved. The outward trappings of failure matter little to God. It is faith and a contrite heart that God looks for.

Detail from October Harvest, Van Matino (contemporary) | Image from Art Leaders Gallery. When I first saw this detail crop of the larger painting, I honestly couldn’t figure out what it was at first – the glowing pear on the right was so lustrous that I thought it was an abstract painting. The richness of the colors in the fruit is a nice analogy for what God must see in us – our shining souls – rather than how we picture ourselves.

And what of the cycle? If harvest is the first inflection point, what of germination? What will come of this harvest? 

Jesus tells them, “As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.” These are things you do for people in spiritual trouble; rather, that you do for souls in need of saving. Jesus makes it clear that the disciples and his own ministry are operating on a new plane: a spiritual one that transcends the physical one. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand! The new life that Jesus is in the process of begetting with this harvest of souls is infinitely greater. It is eternal life in heaven.

Cycles are abolished with this set of inflection points to end all cycles. The harvest that Christ began in his ministry and successfully established with his sacrifice to the Father has changed the concavity of history. We exist now in the end times, able to be a part of the harvest of souls as laborers and the harvested. We await the final germination of our souls in the Kingdom of Heaven, that final inflection point upward. This is explained in the letter to the Hebrews:

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.  (Heb 9:24-28).

Yes, may we all be “eagerly waiting for him,” harvested and ready to gain new life in the Kingdom. And, particularly for those of the Dominican charism, we must hear the call to be laborers in this harvest – the salvation of souls must be our heart’s desire, just as it is God’s.


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