Sunday, June 14, 2020

Mixed Metaphors | Second Sunday After Pentecost 2020

The Harvest Cradle, by John Linnell (1859)

"Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to 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.' Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness."Matthew 9:35-10:1 NRSV

Although I'm the son of a fourth generation Missouri farmer, I have no experience with rearing sheep or harvesting wheat. Dad raised cattle and hogs, and planted corn and sometimes soybeans. He did plant winter wheat from time to time, but it wasn't a big part of his operation. He refused to have anything to do with sheep, although his father kept sheep, because he said they were 'too stupid to live.' I know people who disagree with that assessment, but my father had enough of them growing up, apparently. What I do have experience with is the Bible, and there are some passages that always seem a little odd to me, not for content (though there's plenty of weirdness there), but for structure. The reading for today is one of them.

This story in the Gospel of Matthew is well-known to Christians, and two verses in particular are on the tip-of-the-tongue of all evangelical leaders. Verses 37 and 38 have Jesus telling his disciples that the harvest is ready, and so laborers are needed for the harvest. The standard interpretation for this is that there are 'souls to be saved' and so Christians need to tell everyone about Jesus so they won't go to hell. In this scenario, the souls are 'harvested' in the sense of salvation, set aside as God's special people. 

Before we proceed further, let's take a step back and look at the flow of this test. It goes from 'sheep without a shepherd' to harvesting and back to 'sheep' later in chapter 10. The harvest verses don't really match the surrounding text. Caring for sheep and harvesting grain are two distinct activities. At best this is a mix metaphor. In reality, I think we're dealing with an interpolation. When the writer of Matthew was putting this together, it seems to me that they had different sources available, and one of these would have been known sayings of Jesus. This doesn't mean that Jesus really said everything attributed to him, just as Mark Twain gets too much credit online these days for witticism, but rather that it was believed that he said these things. 

Writing about the 12 being commissioned to preach the kingdom, drive out demons, heal diseases, and so forth, the writer of Matthew had this popular line, but no idea where to put it. The most natural place, it seems, would be in a portion that speaks of ministry in agrarian terms. Shepherding and planting are different activities, but both are part of what a farm laborer would do. And so, here they slide in the harvest and the need for laborers. 

Looking at Luke, the only other canonical Gospel that explicitly references laborers being needed for the harvest, we find it in a similar but different moment of Jesus' ministry:

"After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.'" Luke 10:1-4 NIV

In Matthew, Jesus was preparing his 12 disciples to go out on a shock and awe campaign, announcing his kingdom's arrival, the final return from exile event that the Judeans had been awaiting for centuries. In Luke, it's the sending of the 72 on a similar campaign. Both Matthew and Luke had this saying of Jesus to put somewhere, and they each made their choices. In Luke it really isn't jarring at all, and seems to go with the flow of the rest of the tex, without interruption.

While I'm not an advanced biblical scholar at this point, having only a Bachelor of Ministry and years of study in and out of the context of ministry, this is a blog post and not a scholarly paper. Don't take this more more than what I'm offering, namely, an informed opinion about a passage in the New Testament. You can take the following in the same light as well. 

If this saying about the harvest being ripe and needing laborers, then in the original context it would have referred to the in-gathering of God's people out of Israel in preparation for the judgment of Israel and the world. In the apocalypse ('unveiling') he was describing, the true worshipers of God would be spared and set free from oppression, with the Roman Empire thrown off their backs, and the unfaithful and corrupt in Israel destroyed. Thus the return from exile would be complete, God's kingdom would be on earth, and all would be set right. 

There was nothing of the medieval concepts of an ethereal heaven or a fiery, endless hell in this saying. These only came later as the apostle Paul's interpretation of the meaning of Jesus took hold in the wider world, and the specific political situation of Israel was made irrelevant to the new faith. By the time the Great Awakenings took place in the United States the idea was very firmly rooted in Christian theology that everyone has an immortal soul, and that the post-life state of that soul depended on whether a person was inwardly regenerated by the power of God, and saved from a life of sin.    

As for me, my thoughts go not to sheep or grain, but to the human beings in the United States and around the world who are being oppressed because of their beliefs, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or any other defining factor of their existence. What this world and its people need is justice.