From the very first time I came across this gospel passage, I have always associated it with the ordained ministry in the Church. That's because it was at an ordination that I first heard it preached. The bishop spoke to the man to be ordained in words I have never forgotten:
Today this command of Jesus has been fulfilled. The people of this parish have been praying that the Lord send labourers into his harvest. Today their prayers are answered: the Lord sends you.
This week I will be seven years a priest myself. Seven years of happiness and seven years of being taught --- not always with docility --- what working in the harvest is all about. So with this same gospel before me, I feel led to reflect for a moment on what it means to be called and to be sent and to labour in the Lord's harvest.
What first strikes me about this passage is the Lord's generosity. Without his grace there would be no harvest needing labourers. It is his planting in the souls of the faithful that alone produces the fruit of any ministry. But generously he makes the harvest to be ours too. He associates us with what is his.
Jesus tells the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. He tells them to pray to him that there will be co-workers with him in the proclamation of God's reign.
How amazing that the Lord should give us still imperfect creatures a share in his recreating work! It must be what St. Augustine marvelled at when he said,
God created us without us but he willed not to save us without us.
The text thus reminds us also of the curious interdependence of being sent and being called. Might it be that what one hears when called to ministry is not only that still, small voice speaking in the heart, but also the innumerable voices in the prayers of the faithful responding to the Lord's need of labourers for his harvest?
Jesus almost makes it sound as if there will be no more labourers until there be more prayers for labourers. He almost makes it sound as if the harvest depends on the prayers of the disciples. Looked at this way, calling those to be sent is no less a sharing in the Lord's work than actually being sent.
But if that is the case, given the shortage of priests today, are we to believe that there simply isn't enough praying for more labourers? Perhaps not. Maybe it's just that the prayers of the faithful have a more generous notion of who counts as a labourer.
There is no reason to think that the labourers needed for the harvest are exclusively those called to the ordained ministry. While some commentaries suggest that the seventy would very likely have included men later identified with apostolic ministry in the church, like Barsabbas and Matthias, the text is resolutely silent on their identity.
That's as it should be. The overwhelming number of labourers in the harvest have always been anonymous. Men and women living their faith as spouses, parents, workers, pray-ers, and in innumerable other ways --- all co-workers in the proclamation of the Kingdom. They are the both the real abundance in the harvest and its most indefatigable labourers.
After seven years of priesthood, I no longer so uniquely associate this gospel passage with the ordained ministry. It belongs to the whole people of God. If there were some means of saying something like those words the bishop spoke to a man about to be ordained, I think the ordained should say them to all the faithful:
Today this command of Jesus has been fulfilled. The priests and deacons of the Church have been praying that the Lord send labourers into his harvest. Today their prayers are answered: the Lord sends you.