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. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James and Thaddaeus; Simon and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
I’ve got a real love/hate relationship with the concept of evangelism. I mean, on the one hand, the Greek word translated as ‘evangelist’ simply means to be a bearer of good news. That’s hardly offensive, right? And if we believe that the good news of the gospel is that the very Kingdom of God is in our midst, that God has become incarnate among us in order to share God’s radical love with use, that Jesus walked among us in order to show us how to attain life that really is life, and to show us how to build a world in which the hungry will be fed, the sick will be healed, and the brokenness in our world made whole, then hey, I’m all about evangelizing the heck out of that. If following that vision, and sharing that vision with others is what it means to be an evangelist, sign me up!
But then of course, there’s all the other baggage that comes along with our contemporary understanding of what it means to evangelize. Like, the kind of evangelism that compels someone to stop you on the street and ask if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your “Lord and savior”— whatever that means. Or the kind of evangelism that is compelled by the notion that if a 12 year old African boy halfway around the world dies without knowing about Jesus, that our loving God would somehow condemn that boy to hell. We all know about that kind of evangelism. And it’s rather unfortunate, I think, that this brand of evangelism seems to have cornered the market on what it means to be an evangelist these days. It’s seems unfair to me that there’s an entire denomination now which gets to claim the word evangelical. Especially considering the fact that it ain’t us. I’m just a little resentful about that.
I bring all of this up because this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the central Gospel texts that deals with our call to be evangelists for Christ’s message and ministry. Therefore I thought it might be helpful for us to spend some time this morning reflecting about what this means for us in our particular context. What would it look like for us, as mainline and progressive Christians, to reclaim the word evangelical?
To begin this task, I think the best place for us to start is with the text itself. Perhaps the most important line in this passage, when it comes to the Christian imperative to spread the good news, comes fairly early on in the text, when Jesus sees the massive crowds of people in need of healing and comfort, and says to his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.” Now, the traditional interpretation of this line has been that the “harvest” Jesus refers to in this passage are the people themselves. The crowds who have gathered around Jesus— “helpless and harassed,” as Matthew describes them— are the needy multitudes, ready to be gathered up as a harvest and delivered safely into God’s kingdom— given there are enough laborers to get them there. Now perhaps on the surface, this seems like a fairly innocuous interpretation. After all, to gather the multitudes of needy, hungry people in the world and lead them into the kingdom of God— a place where the hungry are fed, the brokenhearted made whole, and where peace and justice reign— well that sounds pretty good, right? The problem with this interpretation, as I see it, comes up when you start to ask, well, that’s great for the multitudes, but what happens to everyone else? What about the people who are not part of the harvest? What about the people who the laborers aren’t able to get around to? What happens to them?
Turns out, things don’t look quite so great for those folks. Turns out, while the needy multitudes are being led into the Kingdom of God, those left behind, according to the most traditional, hardline evangelical theology, are doomed to eternal darkness and condemnation. If this seems extreme to you, consider the sense of urgency that so many traditional evangelicals seem to feel about the need to travel to the furthest corners of the globe in order to proclaim the gospel. Consider the zeal with which they approach not only friends and family, but even strangers on the street, in order to increase the yield of their harvest. And please don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying this makes them bad people. I mean, if you really, truly believed, deep down in your heart of hearts, that the eternal soul of every single person on the planet was truly at stake, and that it was up to you to help deliver those souls into eternal salvation, would you not do the same? If that’s truly what you believed, how could you fail to do anything else? I mean, this is eternity we are talking about here. How could anything be more important?
I don’t know about you, but that kind of interpretation tends to makes me just a little bit anxious. Not just because I’m an introvert, and the thought of going up to strangers on the street is pretty much the most terrifying thing you could ask me do, but also because that’s a heck of a lot of responsibility! To think that someone on the other side of the world could end up eternally condemned because I didn’t work hard enough to bring the good news to them? That’s a lot of pressure! And I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not sure I want that responsibility. Not to mention, that if that were the case, I’d seriously question God’s wisdom. Because I’m not sure it’s a good idea for us human beings, as selfish, imperfect and flawed as we all are, to be the ones responsible for redeeming other people’s souls. Seems to me it’s hard enough to work on redeeming our own. I’d rather have eternity in the hands of God, not humanity, thank you very much.
Fortunately, for those of us who start to feel a little uneasy about being held responsible for the eternal fate of other people’s souls, there is another way to look at this passage. “The harvest is plentiful” Jesus says to his disciples, “but the laborers are few.” The crucial word here is harvest.’ And as I said before, the traditional interpretation claims that the harvest Jesus refers to here is the people themselves. But what if there's another option? What if the harvest, in this case, is actually the blessings of the kingdom of God? What if the fruits of this harvest are not the people, but rather the gifts that God intends for the people— gifts like grace, truth, freedom, love, peace, justice, mercy, and maybe above all, compassion. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus says. It is abundant. There is more than enough to go around. God has so much grace and mercy to give. But God needs more laborers to help share the blessings of this abundant harvest with those who are sick, broken hearted, poor, oppressed, homeless, marginalized, rejected, denied justice, denied mercy, denied freedom, and all around hungry for a different kind of world. Who among us cannot include ourselves in that multitude?
It’s worth noting here, that this interpretation, while perhaps not as common or as traditional as the first, does have support in the Hebrew Scriptures. The prophet Hosea refers to an earthly harvest that will restore all fortune and blessings to Israel. Similarly, the prophets Joel and Amos refer to a future time of plentiful harvests, when Israel will be redeemed and none shall hunger or thirst for anything. The idea of a heavenly harvest in Hebrew Scriptures is often connected with the promise of healing and redemption for God’s people on earth. And so, Jesus being the good Jewish boy that he was, he would have known these passages very well. So too would his disciples, and, one would imagine, most of his audience. And so when Jesus spoke to his disciples of a harvest, they most likely would have heard that metaphor as a reference to some of their own scripture’s most treasured promises— promises for healing, redemption, reconciliation, and renewed hope— not just in heaven, but here and now.
So as it turns out, there is another way of interpreting what Jesus means when he speaks of a harvest in need of laborers— an interpretation which is strongly supported by Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. In addition, after referencing these ancient and beloved promises, notice what Jesus does next. He sends his disciples out, not to convert people, but to heal them. The text says that Jesus gave his disciples authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and every sickness. In other words, Jesus sends his disciples out to be harvesters— not of human souls, but of heavenly healing and hope.
So, what does all of this mean for us in our world today? If being an evangelical is not about saving souls, then what is it about?
My theory (and that’s all any of us can ever have, really, is theories), is that as evangelists of the Kingdom of God, and as bearers of the good news of the Gospel of love, we are called to be harvesters of healing and hope in our world. God’s Kingdom produces an amazingly abundant harvest of hope, joy, love, peace, freedom, justice, healing, and compassion. And as God’s laborers, it is our job to gather the fruits of that harvest and share them with God’s beloved creation. Ours are the hands that share God’s abundant harvest of love with a hurting world. Ours are the hands that bring food to the hungry and care to the sick and welcome to the stranger. Ours are the hands that bring God’s harvest of hope and healing to the helpless and harassed of this world. That’s my theory as to what it means to be bearers of the good news— to be true Christian evangelists in our world today. And while that may require us, at times, to talk to others about our faith, (I know! Terrifying!) I think that just as often, it has less to do with what we say, and more to do with how well we love. It's like that famous phrase often attributed to St. Francis— "preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”
What’s your theory? How can you reclaim the label of evangelist for your own Christian identity and call? What can you do— in your personal life, in your family and your community, and in our world— to help share the fruits of God’s harvest of hope and love?