Matthew 9:35-38 (NRSV)
The Harvest Is Great, the Laborers Few
35 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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I find it hard to live a balanced life. My diet seems to jump from Instagram-worthy salads to late night kebabs. My sleeping patterns can fluctuate between an unhealthy four hours and a self-indulgent twelve. If the Health App on my iPhone could ask questions, it would surely interrogate me on how some days I climb 15 flights of stairs and walk five or six miles and on others my step count barely enters double digits. Balance is a struggle for me. It doesn’t come naturally.
The same is true for my spiritual life and how I see myself in my relationship with God. There are days when I feel overwhelmed by God’s love and others when I’m not sure he remembers my name.
Reading this week’s lectionary passage revealed an area of imbalance of my life and it’s a consistent one. It’s something that is usually unbalanced and doesn’t fluctuate: I tend to see myself as an agent and dispenser of God’s compassion rather than the subject of it. I tend to see myself as the labourer who tries to emulate his goodness rather than the sheep he wants to shepherd.
But reading it this week, something within me cried out, ‘How can I be a labourer in the harvest if I’m harassed and helpless?!’
Harassed and helpless.
Threadbare and worn thin.
Exhausted and worn out.
I don’t often hear God speak and, when I do, it’s not like an audible voice that rends the Heavens and shakes the Earth. His voice, if that’s what it is, tends to come in pictures and feelings beyond words. On one such occasion a few years ago, I remember being at the end of myself and getting into the bath. [Sidebar: I love the bath. There’s something about laying back in hot water and not moving that has a deeply therapeutic affect on me. Each to their own.] I pulled the plug and let the water begin to drain as I talked to him about where I was at and how I was feeling and I felt him respond. I didn’t hear these words but they are the best way of describing what I feel he was saying:
In your desire to be faithful and seen as faithful, you cup your hands beneath the tap of what I am pouring into your life and give it away to others immediately. Your eagerness, urgency and insecurity are stopping you from being filled. If you lay back, stop trying to control and stop trying to prove yourself, this bath will fill to overflowing without your effort. But if you keep cupping your hands and giving away what is meant for you, you will end up hunched over, naked and cold.
God’s compassion for the world is not just something I am called to give. It is something I am called to receive. To allow myself to experience and feel it.
Later on in this passage, Jesus sends out the disciples to meet these needs and he entrusts this calling to them because they have a shepherd. They start from a place of being loved and cared for. Their ministry is an overflow of the ministry that they have received.
Becoming a shepherd is not my primary calling. When I make it my priority, I seek to become the source of rest, compassion and comfort to the world, a job I am profoundly unequipped for. Becoming a shepherd without learning to be a sheep reveals my insecurity and my aversion to vulnerability because it is so much easier to be the source than it is to admit that I am incomplete. To admit that I need his compassion, his goodness, his kindness and his love. And I do. Dear God do I need it.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.