Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua, New Bedford, MA
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
June 15, 2008
Ex 19:2-6; Rom 5:6-11; Mt 9:36-10:8
Today’s readings focus on two essential and related elements: ELECTION by God of a group of people and the MISSION associated with that election with respect to everyone else. We see it in the first reading, when God chose the Israelites to be his special people, his “treasured possession,” and a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” He did so not because they were intrinsically better than any other race of people or nation, but so that he could prepare a people, through a Covenant, to be ready to receive the gift of God’s own Son as the Messiah and Savior of the whole World.
Likewise, in the Gospel we see that Messiah and Savior choose, from among all of those following him, twelve disciples, giving them a special task to announce that the kingdom of God was at hand, both by their words as well as by the miraculous deeds he gave them power to do. They were not chosen because they were superior to all the rest, but because Jesus wanted to give them a task to do for all the rest.
Finally, in the second reading, we can focus on the fact of OUR election as Christians and what that means. We were chosen by God in baptism and made his special people. Today’s Eucharistic preface (Sunday of Ordinary Time I) will paraphrase the words of St. Peter who, in an early baptismal catechesis, updated the words of today’s first reading and wrote to us Christians: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, and a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the triumphs of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Like the others, we were not chosen because we’re better than any other people; St. Paul tells us this in the second reading when he says that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” We were chosen, rather, for the sake of the mission, to continue Jesus’ saving work until the ends of the world.
Every time Jesus chooses someone or some people, he chooses them for a mission. God calls so that one day he may send. The two great verbs in his vocabulary are “COME!” — “Come, follow me!” (Mt 19:21), “Come away with me and rest for a while” (Mk 6:31), “Come to me all you who labor and find life burdensome and I will refresh you” (Mt 11:28) — and “GO” — “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:6), “Go to the ends of the earth and proclaim the Good News” (Mt 28:18). We Catholics have been chosen by God for all eternity and given a special mission to announce his Gospel and proclaim his kingdom to the ends of the earth. Only one in five people on the planet are Catholics. Only 20% have the fullness of revelation and the fullness of the participation in God’s own life in this world. But God didn’t give us his revelation or the sacraments so that we could become a haughty elite. He gave us all of them so that we might be his hands, his feet, his mouth, his ears, his eyes in bringing those gifts to others. “To whom more is given,” Jesus said, “more is to be expected” (Lk 12:48). We have been given more, but, like in the parable of the talents, we’re called to do more with what we’ve been given (Mt 25:14-29).
St. Therese of Lisieux was once asked why there are so many non-Christians in the world. The co-patroness of the missions responded very frankly, “Because of the laziness of Christians in not bringing them the good news.” Those words, I think, could have come straight from the Lord’s mouth. In today’s Gospel, he looked with compassion on the helpless and abandoned crowds, because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus doubtless looks at so many in today’s world with the same pity, because so many are like shepherdless sheep, searching for direction, lost in the cosmos. They don’t hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, and so, they tune in the voice of strangers and follow them into danger.
Today, as then, Jesus’ response to these crowds is to tell us, whom he has chosen for a special task with respect to all the rest: “The harvest is great, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.” He tells us first that the harvest is huge and there are few doing it. Elsewhere he said, “Look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting!” (Jn 4:35). We don’t have to be a farmer to understand what will happen if we don’t act when the fields are ripe — the produce will corrupt. It’s a call to URGENT ACTION. That urgent action begins with prayer to the Harvest Master to send laborers into his harvest. Notice that Jesus has them pray for LABORERS — hard workers — and not just for “bodies” in his vineyard. The harvest needs people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, to work up a sweat. Harvesting for Jesus is not a cushy air-conditioned job in a plush corner office. The Harvest needs folks who work.
Who are these laborers that the harvest needs? So often Catholics can look at this passage as a call to pray exclusively for priestly and religious vocations. That is clearly one application of this passage, which is why it is often used by those in vocations work. The whole Church needs to pray more insistently for these vineyard laborers in an age when a shortage is already here and will become more acute. But priests and religious are not the only hard-workers the Harvest Master needs in his vineyard. I think back to the episode in the life of the prophet Isaiah, when he heard the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah’s response was not to think about all the others. His response is the response God wants from all of us. He said, “Here am I, Lord; send me!” (Is 6:8). The fields are ripe for the harvest and all of us, as God’s chosen ones, have a role in bringing in that harvest. No one gets a pass. If we think we do, we’re not really Jesus’ disciples, for Jesus said, “The one who doesn’t gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30). Jesus says there’s no way to be neutral: we’re either gatherers and laborers in his vineyard, or we scatter his produce. Every Catholic is called to be a laborer in that vineyard. Each one of us is called to gather with him. To each of us Jesus says, “I appointed YOU to go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).
Sometimes Catholics can and do try to pass the buck on working in the vineyard. They can look at the Church like an inn rather than a home. We all know what happens in an inn. We give some money and others do all the work — they make our bed, clean the room, prepare breakfast, and fix things when they break. Catholics can sometimes look at the parish that way. They can think they’ve done their part by coming to Mass and putting a contribution in the collection basket, leaving others — priests, parish staff and volunteers “with time on their hands” — to do the work of the harvest. But this pattern never happens in a functional home, where everyone needs to pitch in. And it’s not the way God wants it in his home, the Church. There’s a saying — validated in my own priestly experience — that in most parishes, 5% of the parishioners do 95% of the work. The rest come to Mass, do their private prayers, but often treat the Church like a business or a familiar inn where others are working for them. Jesus wants to change all of that. He is calling each one of us to be a WORKER in his vineyard, to do our fair share, not out of justice, but as the path for us to work out our salvation and help in the salvation of others. The whole purpose of why he founded the Church was to give us, AS A COMMUNITY, the joint task to complete his mission. (To proclaim as we do in the Creed that the Church is “apostolic” means that it is founded on the “mission” that the Greek word apostolos , “one who is sent,” signifies). But for us to be successful as his mystical body, we can’t have only 5% of the organs doing the work for the whole body. We need to have the whole body working together.
Jesus looks at the crowds of those who are lost, many of whom may not be saved, and looks at each of us and says, “What are YOU going to do about it?” — not what is your husband or wife going to do about it, or what is the pastor going to do about it, or what is the Bishop or the Pope going to do about it? What are YOU going to do about it? Will you help me in this mission for the salvation of the world? Jesus has made each one of us a temple of God in baptism, strengthened us by the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, feeds us with his own body and blood in the Eucharist, heals us of our sins and failings in confession — all to give us HIS OWN POWER, like he did with the 12 in the Gospel, to proclaim his Gospel in action. But what fruit have we borne? What types of harvest do we bring him? What spiritual calluses do we have to show?
The last question is: Where does Jesus want us to harvest? A few of us he calls to be missionaries to preach the Gospel in distant places. But most of us he treats like he treated the twelve in today’s Gospel. He sent them first to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He sent them to those around them, whom they knew, who spoke their own language, who shared their own culture. Likewise Jesus wants to send most of us to the “lost sheep” of our own houses, to the wandering lambs and goats of our families, of our friends, of Greater New Bedford. He wants to send us to the lapsed and lukewarm people who surround us on all sides. So many are like “sheep without a shepherd,” and Jesus wants to send us to announce that there is a Good Shepherd who is calling them by name, who loves them, who has laid down his life for them (Jn 10:3,11). But the Good Shepherd wants to use your recognizable voice to get his message across. Their salvation may hinge on your saying yes to this mission.
And Jesus calls us to be generous in responding to this call. He tells us at the end of today’s Gospel, “You have received freely; you are to give freely.” Everything we have and are we have received from God, who gave his very life out of love for us. St. Paul points to this truth when he asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1Cor 4:7). Jesus calls us to respond to the free gift of his life for us with the free gift of our life for him and others. To love others as he has loved us means precisely to lay down our lives out of love for the salvation of our family, our friends, even our enemies. We’re called to work as hard for their salvation as Jesus did for ours. This is our mission. This is the reason why we were chosen. This is the task of the Catholic Church and every faithful Catholic.
For this hard work, Jesus gives us his own flesh and blood in the Eucharist, to strengthen us to accomplish this mission. In it we learn the meaning of generosity, giving our body and shedding our blood and sweat for the salvation of others. This is just one other proof that the Lord, who calls us to this mission, will give us all the help we need to fulfill it, if only we say yes, if only we look with compassion on the same crowds, if only we turn in prayer to the Harvest Master and plead for laborers and respond like Isaiah to that summons. Today at this Mass, the Harvest Master asks again, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And he’s waiting for your answer.