At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”Matthew 9: 36-38
Most of us raised as Roman Catholics grew up with hearing the plea of Jesus in today’s gospel passage to be for more “vocations to priesthood and religious life.” One of the unfortunate tendencies of our hierarchical tradition was to delegate the Lord’s labor to certain “religious professionals.” It wasn’t until the mid to late 20th century that we began to understand once again that all were called to discipleship and therefore to the mission of Jesus. While this created something of a “crisis” for those who had been seen as set apart for God’s work, it appropriately restored to all believers the responsibility for the continuing mission of Jesus in the world.
Yet, as we all know, theology is one thing and lived responsibility is another. When I was a child, the mission of Jesus meant to proselytize in hope of gaining converts to the faith. So, the words of today’s gospel had a quite specific meaning. My own religious institute saw, in its patron St. Francis Xavier, the call to evangelize people not only in the name of the Lord but in the faith tradition of the Roman Church. Our founder, a product of the ultramontanism of his time, was passionately driven to gain the souls of the “infidels” for the Church before the Protestants could. While, for the most part, this is not the view today, its clarity may at times feel like something to be envied.
To enter into this familiar passage today, however, requires that we humbly ask ourselves what it means to labor for the Lord, and why it is that the laborers are always so few. To ponder these questions is to recognize the connection between our answer to them both. The past year has been a very challenging one for me. I think it has taught me more forcefully than ever before of how the work, the mission of the Lord requires the giving over of our very lives. One distinguishing aspect of the Lord’s work is that it is always, to varying degrees, countercultural. Its unique value system is one that is always at odds with the values in which the cultures “of the world” have formed us. As Henri Nouwen puts it: “. . . revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions.”
To be a laborer for the Lord, to do the Lord’s work, is to work not for ourselves but only for the other. Aside from Jesus himself and maybe a handful of other exceptional human persons, most of us are never purely altruistic. The cultural values for recognition, success, appreciation, power, comfort, etc. in which we have been formed are deeply unconsciously and habitually rooted in us. Even as we try to help others, our works are tainted by our “reactionary fears and false ambitions.” So, our fear of conflict and our fear of vulnerability, our need to prove ourselves and our desire to be seen as significant, just for example, are always with us and often determinative in what we do and how we act. The more unconscious these are in us, the stronger their influence in our behavior and on our work. So, even those of us whose assigned work is outwardly ministerial in character often find ourselves doing our own work more than the Lord’s.
The work of the Lord, be it acting for others or entering deeply into prayer, is always extremely difficult and demanding of us. This is true whether the work itself is physically demanding or not. For our work to be God’s work, we must be continually dying to ourselves, to all that we have thought we wanted to be and to all that we had hoped to make of ourselves. This is why the laborers, whatever the ecclesiology involved, are always few. To be human is to want to serve the lives of others but to prefer to do it on our terms. We want to be seen as responsible, and perhaps attain status and position that makes us recognizable and esteemed by others, but we don’t really want to be changed in response to the demands those responsibilities will make of us. It is the very nature of Jesus’ mission that the earthen vessels that we are break open. It is only when the vessel of the “self” we take ourselves to be is broken that the power and the wisdom of God can be made manifest.
The reason that the work of the Lord always breaks us is because it is always and above all interpersonal. In his homily for Pentecost Pope Francis said that the Spirit “looks at individuals before looking at their mistakes, at persons before their actions.” Therefore, the disciple is invested above all in being a servant of the person of the other. This does not and cannot only include correcting mistakes and improving structures, for such is always to be in service to the human and spiritual formation of the other. We cannot master relationship, however. We can only commit to it. We never succeed in perfecting our ability to love. Because there is always contradiction in our attempts to love another, it is finally only through the work of God that the other can come to know his or her own truth.
So, whatever the particular expressions that our work takes on, the work of the disciple is one that asks for everything and that inevitably feels incomplete. The potency that one knows in being a disciple is far different from the functional potency we all need and crave. Transcendent potency is the potency we have to be an instrument of Another’s work. It is a work in which we give ourselves until we are broken and can be shared as nourishment by those we serve. The laborers are few because the labor of Jesus requires such a willingness to die to oneself. St. Paul writes:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.2 Cor 5: 14-15
To become a laborer in the mission of Jesus is to learn by experience, in vulnerability and humility, to love no longer for oneself but for him who is the true life of the other. The cost of such discipleship is everything. It is giving ourselves for the sake of others, not because they will appreciate it and give us recognition and admiration but for the love of Jesus alone.
Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. Mystics cannot prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection they will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions.Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, pp. 23-24
Mystics as well as revolutionaries have to cut loose from their selfish needs for a safe and protected existence and have to face without fear the miserable condition of themselves and their world. It is certainly not surprising that the great revolutionary leaders and the great contemplatives of our time meet in their common concern to liberate those who live in the modern age from their paralysis.