(Photo credit: Gerald Mwangi)
What can harvesting be like?
What do we think of when we hear the words ‘harvest’ and ‘harvesting’? What would Jesus’ first hearers have thought of when they heard him talk about labourers being sent out into the harvest? How would they have reacted to the news that the harvest is ‘plentiful’? What if those of us who are twenty-first century Westerners are missing a lot of the intended force of Jesus’ language because we are deaf to the connotations that harvest would have had in a non-mechanised agricultural community?
I asked a number of Kenyan friends to share their experiences of harvest to help me to hear Matthew 9:37-38 more clearly and richly. Here are seven things they taught me:
Harvesting is joyful
“Growing up as a young boy, I really liked the harvest period. Harvest meant an exciting experience… happiness in the family… fresh food… It was a joyful moment to everyone at home because after the hard labor and waiting for lots of months we were harvesting the fruit of our labor. Sometimes we would sing hymns and praises as we harvest.”
“In a nutshell, harvest time was a time of celebration and joy… This was our motivation to keep doing it.”
Harvesting is communal
“To harvest an acre would mostly involve my parents, extended family members and friends from the village depending on how fast my dad wanted this to happen. Around 15 people would do the job. A plot [typically an eighth of an acre] would take like 2-3 people to do the work.”
“Harvesting time is one period when there is high integration of the community, for it is in a great sense a communal activity. People in the neighborhood would join hands and help in harvesting work from one homestead to another. As people gather to work, they would sing traditional cultural songs with harvesting themes to help psyche them to work, emphasizing the call to unity, and joy in the provision of harvest.”
Harvesting is hard work
“It meant a period of hard work, spending long hours… under the scorching sun… doing lots of manual work, perhaps for several days.”
“People wake up as early as 5 am to prepare breakfast and lunch because we would spend the whole day harvesting. I was always the first one to feel hungry. My grandmother was very strict so I had to finish even if it was late.”
“The physical experience of harvesting is draining in terms of energy. Sometimes it does become boring and you wonder when it will end. Then you have to ensure all the harvested sacks are brought back home which is another heavy task. The physical experience is partly good, partly demanding, and full of risks as one can be injured through the tools used.”
Harvesting is careful work
“In many times if the harvest is heavy then you go forward more slowly than you can imagine – for example harvesting cotton.”
“Harvesting is a process which involves several steps; take for example the corn plant. When the crops have matured and shown signs of drying up, people would go to the farm and hand pick the corn from the maize stalks. That would take days, depending on the size of the farm. After getting the produce off the farm, the corn would be basked in the sun for at least two weeks for it to dry. After drying, it would be manually rammed using sticks to get individual maize seeds, followed by winnowing to clear the chaff, then packed in sacks for storage.”
Harvesting is learnt by inter-generational apprenticeship
“I learnt harvesting by doing it (though I did it wrong the first few times) and by observing how people did it.”
“Interestingly, I don’t remember sitting for a lesson on harvesting, I just… learnt to do it through my parents who would take me with them to the farm to do the work as they did. They kept guiding me by ensuring I used the tools well and did what was appropriate for me as a child. Through being encouraged by them and seeing other people within the village doing the same, with time I became a senior [proficient].”
“Right from childhood, during harvesting period everyone would go to the farm, regardless of the age. Everyone would strive not to be left behind. The young children would play in the farm, observe other people do it, be given small responsibilities and eventually learn how to do it. Because manual labor was the only way to get work done, it was important to get as many hands as possible, and so my parents, as well as the community at large, would work hard and focus on getting the young generation to know how to go through the harvesting process.”
Harvesting is urgent
“In the harvest season that precedes a major downpour… and especially in an event where the harvest is big, we would source labor from neighbors so as to finish the task on time before the rains.”
“At times because, of the challenge of rains, he would want the work to be done fast… to escape the risk of rain damage to the farm produce, and also allow time for preparing the farm for the next planting.”
“The other harvest season is in a dry, hot season and people would still strive to finish up on harvesting so as to attend to other activities… There is also a cultural connotation to it, that if it’s harvesting time and a particular individual doesn’t seem to pay much attention, they would be branded lazy by the society, and that goes a long way to determining the way the society would view such a person and the societal responsibilities one may be assigned. Thus, harvesting would be treated with urgency across the society.”
Harvesting is goal-focused
“The harvest… is the only source of food and source of income to many subsistent farmers.”
“The physical experience wasn’t easy… but the motivation was the harvest.”
“When it is over, the sight of the harvest and its value satisfies deeply.”
“As a young lazy boy who preferred play and less work; harvest wasn’t necessary a fun time for it meant work and more work but as I grew older and realised what was at stake I was more motivated to help my parents in this.”
The Bible and Harvest
It’s interesting how much this fits with the biblical material on harvesting as well as on gospel ministry:
Joyful: Psalm 126 speaks of reaping with “shouts of joy”. Isaiah talks of the proverbial ‘joy at the harvest’ (Isaiah 9:3), and harvest as a time of singing and cheering (Isaiah 16:9-10). In John 4:35-38, Jesus explicitly makes the connection between the joy of reaping and the work he is sending his disciples to do. Paul’s letters, especially Philippians and 1 Thessalonians, are full of his great joy in those churches – the fruit of his labours – his joy and crown. When we hear that the “harvest is plentiful” our hearts should be thrilled and motivated for the work.
Communal: In the passages about joy, the singing and the rejoicing are clearly communal. But the plurality of harvesters is also evident in places like 1 Samuel 6:13, as well as earlier in the story of Ruth. Here, the harvest involves Boaz (the landowner), the reapers (young men), the gleaners (young women) and a foreman (a young man in charge of the reapers). When Jesus sends out the first labourers into the harvest field, he sends them in twos (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). In Paul’s ministry, we see him appointing eldership teams (Acts 14:23) and continually working in teams himself (Romans 16). When we think of labourers being sent into the harvest field, we should think of harvesting teams – not of a solitary man in a combine harvester.
Hard: The Bible is realistic about the “scorching heat” (Isaiah 18:4; Matthew 20:12) that leaves you dying for a cold drink (Proverbs 25:13). Similarly, Jesus, straight after Matthew 9:38, sends out the first 12 workers into the harvest field warning them to expect serious opposition, including mockery, flogging and death (Matt. 10:14-25). Paul compares the gospel worker to the hard-working farmer (2 Tim. 2:6) and repeatedly warns of the suffering involved in harvesting (2 Timothy; Acts 20; 2 Corinthians 12). When we think of being sent into the harvest field, we should be very clear on the cost.
Careful: In the Ruth narrative, you find the need for cutting, gleaning and threshing. Jesus’ ministry looks a lot like that. Separating people, and being very careful with the bruised reed (Isa. 42:3) while threshing out the dead chaff (Matt. 3:12). Paul speaks of gospel workers as farmers – but then he shifts the metaphor to builders, saying ‘let each one takes care how he builds’ (1 Cor. 3:10). Are we building with the gospel of Christ or with straw? Are we being careful how we deal with people’s souls (2 Cor. 2:5-11)? Are we carefully watching our own life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16)? Are we discerning between different people and different cases (Matt. 7:15-20; 1 Thess. 5:14)? When we think of harvesting, we should be prepared for it to be complicated, sensitive work.
Apprenticeship: In 2 Kings 4:18, the Shunnamite’s son is out with his father and the reapers – very much like the Kenyan context. And when Paul goes into the harvest field, he takes a band of co-workers with him – including younger trainees. “But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Phil. 2:22). Harvesting is learnt by doing, serving alongside, observing, getting it wrong and trying again, receiving increasing responsibilities, being guided and coached within the context of an encouraging ‘parental’ relationship.
Urgent: As in Kenya, it is shameful to be lazy when everyone is urgently needed to gather the harvest in, so in the Bible sleeping in harvest time is a shameful thing (Prov. 10:5. And standing around idle all day when the grapes need to be harvested is highly questionable (Matt. 20:6). Jesus says that the harvest is ready to be harvested right now (John 4:35) – there is no time to waste. We see the apostles in Acts moving with this urgency; they are aware of the coming downpour of judgment. Christ is at the door. In harvesting, we do not want to compromise carefulness or take short-cuts, but we should never forget that there is an awesome urgency to the work.
Goal-focused: Unsurprisingly (but easily forgotten), the point of harvesting is the fruit. That is what every vineyard owner is looking for (Isaiah 5; Mark 11-12). Fruitfulness is essential (John 15). Paul is looking for a harvest of faith-fuelled obedience (Romans 1:13; 7:4). He prays desperately for fruit (Phil. 1:19; Col. 1:10). When we go into the harvest field we are not simply seeking to ‘do our job faithfully’, we are hungry to see a beautiful harvest of mature, fruitful, God-glorifying disciples of our Jesus Christ, and that hunger drives us on.