It is the time of the harvest, a time to gather the bounty of the fields. One of my earliest childhood memories is that of the corn harvest on our family farm in Walworth County. My father was driving the tractor pulling the corn picker and a wagon. It was cold and evening was falling. My older brother and sister and I were in the wagon, where the ripened ears of corn were falling from the corn picker’s conveyer. My older siblings were there to level the ears to fill the wagon properly. I was too small to be helpful with that — I was just along for the ride. The copious harvest of golden ears dropping into the wagon is etched in my mind as an image of bounty, and it always comes back to me at this time of year.
Because ours was a dairy farm, our focus was milk production. We grew crops principally to feed the cattle. Our main crops back then were alfalfa for hay, green corn for silage, ripened corn for cornmeal, and oats to mix with the cornmeal. We bailed the straw and stalks as bedding for the cattle. In later years, we also began to grow cash crops — wheat, soybeans and additional corn.
I remember that harvest time was a particularly rewarding time for farmers. After all the work of tilling, planting and cultivating, the time of the harvest was a moment to appreciate the fruits of the labor. It was a time of gratitude, an opportunity to give thanks to God for the abundance of his gifts.
Harvest is a significant theme in the Sacred Scriptures. In the New Testament, it is a powerful metaphor to teach us about the mystery of the Kingdom of God, acceptance of God’s word, the mission of the Church, the fruits of righteous living and final judgment.
The image of the growth of the plant from seed to harvest is an image of the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Specifically, it speaks of how the Kingdom of God grows and comes to fruition through God’s initiative: “This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29) The Kingdom of God is already at work in our world. We are participants and collaborators in the growth of the Kingdom when we spread God’s word, and carry out the works of love and mercy that Jesus initiated in his ministry.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each include a version of the parable of the sower. It follows the progress of the seeds from the time of sowing to the time of harvest. Not all of the seeds survive. Some fall on the hard footpath and are carried off by birds. Some cannot sink their roots because of rocky soil. Some grow for a while, but then the thorn bushes choke them. Those that fall in good soil grow and flourish, and at harvest time produce a great yield. The seed represents the word of God, and the different examples of poor soil represent obstinate attitudes, spiritual shallowness, and worldly anxieties that keep people from growing in the faith. The good soil represents those who hear the word, accept it and put it into practice. (See Matthew 13:3-8; 18-23, Mark 4:3-8;13-20 and Luke 8:4-8;13-15)
In the Gospels, the theme of the harvest speaks of the mission of the Apostles: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few, so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.’” (Matthew 9:37-38) In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pronounces this saying immediately before summoning his 12 Apostles and sending them on a mission to cure the sick and drive our demons. This passage teaches us that Jesus calls all of his followers to participate in his saving mission.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do you not say, ‘In four months, the harvest will be here?’” (John 4:35a) He is referring to a proverb that has to do with the time interval between the sowing of the seed and the harvest. However, when it comes to the harvest of souls, there is no need to wait. The time is right to preach, teach, and heal: “I tell you, look up and see the fields are ripe for the harvest. The reaper is already gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper can rejoice forever. For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’” (John 4:35b-37) God has sown his word and it is efficacious. The time to reap is now. The reward of cooperating with Jesus in his mission is the joy of seeing the harvest of believers.
St. Paul uses the image of the harvest to speak about the fruits of righteous living: “a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7b-9) It is common wisdom that we reap what we sow. If we sow only to please our own desires, we will reap a crop blighted and corrupted by selfishness. If we sow to please God, we will reap a harvest of happiness and everlasting life.
In the Book of Revelation, the reaping of the grain harvest symbolizes the gathering of the elect in the final judgment. The reaping and the crushing of the grapes in the winepress symbolizes the fate that awaits those who live their lives in opposition to God’s will. (Revelation 14:14-20) The Book of Revelation reminds us that, ultimately, Christ will triumph over evil. In life, we align ourselves with Christ through our faith and our works of love, mercy and generosity, and so become a bountiful harvest for God, who calls us to be his own for all eternity.
If you happen to be riding through the countryside during this autumn season, and you observe the farmers reaping the bounty of the fields, fix your thoughts on the “master of the harvest,” who rejoices in the harvest of believers. God calls all of us, the baptized, to participate in the harvest through spreading the Good News of the risen Christ through our words, attitudes and actions.