Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves, van Gogh 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Luke 10:2.
Well I think you’d agree with the Lord when he says that; (the quote above). That is as true today as, apparently, it was 2000 years ago. In my parish each Sunday’s Prayer of the Faithful contains a petition to God to help each one of us approach someone who used to attend Mass but does not anymore, and invite them to return to the table of the Lord. I’ve no idea if that has indeed happened, but I know from trying this exact approach with a friend of mine, it is not easy. It is so much easier to lie in bed on a Sunday morning than drag yourself off to church; even more difficult if you have kids (the reason I never get upset if there is crying or excited squeals from the very young at my Masses; I am simply amazed they are there at all; it is an example of heroic virtue). So what is the solution offered by Jesus? He sent off 72 “others” ahead of him to prepare the people there for his arrival. I wonder who they were. The Lord must have assembled quite a few followers to be able to do that. One homilist suggests they were ordinary people, and, unlike the apostles, not “ordained” in our present sense of the world. They were not at the Last Supper where the apostles were instructed to “do this in memory of me”, hence becoming what we would eventually understand as ordained priests. No, they seemed to be “ordinary” people. They were told to expect success and failure, to dust themselves down if they had not been received well, and move on. When greeted well, they should accept the hospitality offered them and rejoice. Well, how about that today?
In the usual understanding, missionary holy people, priests and nuns are often, perhaps always, thought of as types of Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in “The Nun’s Story”, or Graham Faulkner at St. Francis in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. Meanwhile Mr. and Mrs. Jones next door would probably never be thought of as such. Yet today’s gospel does seem to call them – and all of us – to such a state. When I was a Jesuit novice in Pennsylvania, one of the exercises we were required to do was conduct a sort of census of the Catholics at a local community college. We had to knock on the doors of the local college dorm and ask if the people there were Catholic or not. As this was deep in Pennsylvania Dutch territory, you can imagine the result. It was agonizing, and not simply the abuse we sometimes received. To put it mildly, we did not return to base rejoicing in the successes and the conquests we had made. I, at least, was glad it was over. Direct missionary zeal is a gift from God, which I had not received. I don’t know how those 7th Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses do it! On the other hand, the way one lives one’s life can really be seen as a missionary act. Simply being a good person, itself not an easy accomplishment, is to be a missionary. Being perhaps a little more vocal about the foundation on which we stand which gives life to that behavior is what Jesus is calling us to in today’s gospel. Simply being happy with being a good Catholic or whatever your Christian identity is, and perhaps every now and then mentioning or just alluding to the reasons which nourish that, is all it takes. Why keep the secret of that contentment secret? The first reading describes a picture of rejoicing and nourishment which supports us and which can easily be transcribed to today’s world. For Jerusalem, read Sunday’s Eucharist, a word which means Thanksgiving. Being renewed in the faith, which the Sunday Mass is supposed to achieve, will give the peace and mercy St. Paul talks of in the second reading.
So, like the old lady harvesting the wheat in van Gogh’s picture above, we are all called to the harvest in one way or another. Some of us will find that easier than others, but all of us should be content in what we believe in to be true and life-giving, just as the wheat of the harvest. Hence we should be open to inviting others into that source of happiness in a gentle and welcoming way, so that they might also find the meaning of life and love in God.
The Lay Ministry in the Church.