WHEN Jesus sends out the seventy disciples to preach and to prepare the way for him, he says that they will go out “like lambs into the midst of wolves”. In the vulnerability of their witness — going out without purse, bag, or sandals — they imitate his ministry (cf. Luke 9.58). In their willingness to be as defenceless as lambs, they foreshadow his self-offering on the cross: as the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
If the ministry of the seventy foreshadowed Jesus’s sacrifice, it also makes manifest his victory. On their return, he tells the disciples: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Jesus’s earthly ministry — his preaching of good news to the poor, his embrace of those most despised and marginalised by the powers that be, his healing of illness and casting out of demons — proclaimed and embodied his ultimate triumph over sin and death.
The ministry of the seventy has revealed, in similarly tangible ways, the fruits of this victory. Jesus gently reminds them that these powerful actions should not become a source of pride. He excludes any “self-congratulation” by “reminding them that God is the source of all insight and confidence” (Judith Lieu, Epworth Bible Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
Paul’s ministry embodies the same combination of vulnerability and victory as that of the seventy. It is, he says, by “sowing to the Spirit” that eternal life is reaped. As St Jerome explains, such sowing is not simply a matter of human exertion, but rather a participation in the victory wrought by Christ’s death and resurrection. “The one who sows good things sows not in his own spirit but in God’s, from whom he will also reap eternal life.”
This is borne out in the closing sentences of the epistle, which Paul writes with his own hand. They, too, speak of his participation in the sacrifice and the triumph of the cross. In his words, “the world has been crucified to me,” and “a new creation is everything.”
The harvest imagery in our Epistle echoes that of Jesus in our Gospel. As David Lyle Jeffrey explains, the events recounted in this Gospel almost certainly occurred at about the Feast of Tabernacles. The feast celebrated the Lord’s provision for his people during their wanderings through the desert (2 Chronicles 8.13).
Later, it also became an occasion of thanksgiving to God for the blessings of the harvest (Nehemiah 8.13-18). This harvest thanksgiving was also understood to anticipate the abundant blessings of the messianic age (Zechariah 14.16-21).
When Jesus declares: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few,” he is drawing on this rich vein of scriptural imagery, which witnessed both to God’s provision in the present age and to the consummation of his loving purposes in the age to come (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
These words of Jesus should inspire and agitate every Christian. They speak of the spiritual hunger in all human hearts. But they also speak of the need for labourers to complete the work of evangelisation — nurturing these seeds of divine grace, and drawing people into the fellowship of the Church.
St Gregory the Great declares that it is “not without deep sorrow” that we hear that the labourers are few: “Although there is no lack of people longing to hear good news, there is a lack of people to spread it.”
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the abundance of the age to come, in which God’s purposes are brought to completion. The Holy City is pictured as a nurturing mother, feeding her children at the breast. For Christians, this is to be understood as a type of the Church (Revelation 21.1-4).
Commenting on this passage, Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that here “we find the entire treasure of the Church, who suckles us as our mother and from whom, according to the first reading, we should drink our fill.
“The Church has no other consolation for her children than the one she has received from God: that the love of God has finally been made comprehensible to the world in Jesus’ Cross” (Light of the Word). In the eucharist, the Church feeds us with the life poured out at Calvary — as nourishment for this present age, and a foretaste of the eternal banquet.