A recent radio interview featured a journalist who decided to spend a year doing jobs that most Americans will not do. One of these jobs was to harvest lettuce. For two months he was the only white person toiling among Mexican migrant workers. He described the back-breaking labor vividly and how he had to become numb to the pains in his back and hands and arms to make it through each day. He had to ignore his fierce thirst from the relentless heat and sun, for to take a break to get water would put him hopelessly behind.
What was most impressive in his story was the way people helped one another in the fields. When one person was sick and could not keep up the pace, all the others automatically took on a bit more of a load to help her get through the day. This work is so physically strenuous and the pay so meager that few if any would ever aspire to it; migrants desperate for any income take it gladly.
In today’s Gospel Jesus invites his disciples to take up the very strenuous work of evangelization. As in the lettuce fields, the harvest is abundant, but those who are willing to take on this demanding work are few. Those who do take it up are “like lambs among wolves,” gentle and loving, while facing fierce opposition that could even devour them. Like migrant workers in the United States, whose presence is unwanted yet whose work is indispensable, laborers in God’s vineyard also face frequent rejection.
Furthermore, they bring with them no provisions and no defenses. For their food they are dependent on what is offered them. They deserve payment, but there is no guarantee they will receive it. Like migrants who cannot raise their voice in protest against injustices toward them for fear of deportation, missionaries may need to move to another town, another field, another kind of crop if there is no welcome for them in the first place they preach. Their vulnerability proclaims an alternative kind of power to that of the reigning systems: God’s saving power of love in the crucified Christ. Throughout, they are to be bearers of peace proclaiming God’s reign. What would entice anyone to take up such work?
The last part of the Gospel points to the rewarding aspects of this difficult work. When proclaimers of the Gospel can see that the power they use for good is able to transform evil situations, the ensuing joy is indescribable. It is essential for them, however, not to focus on the visible results of their handiwork and not to take false pride in what they may think has been accomplished by their own efforts. Their true joy comes from acknowledging the divine source of the power they are able to wield, as they entrust themselves fully to the One who has called them to mission.
Like the returning exiles addressed in the first reading, who are filled with rejoicing over the rebuilding of Jerusalem, they know that they rest under God’s protective mantle, where they may “suck fully of the milk of her comfort” and “nurse with delight at her abundant breasts.” It is the Holy One who will “spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,” carrying its inhabitants in her arms, fondling them in her lap, “as a mother comforts a child.”
Those who respond to Jesus’ invitation to go out into the fields never go alone. Like the workers cutting lettuce, they have partners who rally in support of anyone who is flagging, ensuring that none is left behind and that all together share in the joy of a successful harvest.