I Guess Laborers and Lambs Don’t Wear Lipstick
Last week we talked about how the author of Luke’s gospel escalated the story of Elisha in 1 Kings. Elisha is called to follow Elijah, and he goes back to cook one last meal with his community before he sets out.
Jesus said in our gospel last week that the call was so urgent that no one could turn back for any reason, not even to say goodbye.
Today we get what seems like even more intimidating news.
Not only are we to set off immediately without worrying about loose ends, we also don’t get to pack anything. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” Jesus says.
I don’t know about you, but I never leave home without my phone, wallet, and keys at the very least, and frankly I don’t like to leave home without a lipstick and a prayerbook.
(FYI, that’s a tried and true clergywoman slogan: “Lipstick and prayerbook: don’t leave home without them.”)
But according to Luke, Jesus is having none of it.
Not only that, the disciples have to go out by themselves. That’s the really scary part.
All this time, they’ve been following him. He’s been leading the show, making the decisions. They’ve just been along for the ride.
Now he’s asking them to go ahead of him, into unknown territory, and live with people, eat with people, heal people, and tell them the Kingdom of God is near.
That sounds awful, frankly. It’s scary and uncomfortable and I’m not interested, especially if I can’t bring my lipstick and prayerbook.
But I guess saying that to Jesus’ face was pretty much impossible, so God love the disciples, they gave it a shot.
But what’s interesting to me here is that along with all the bad news—you’re on your own among strangers and you can’t even take any resources—Jesus gives the seventy disciples two specific identities to name them, shape them, and take them into and through this new ministry.
They’re easy to miss if you’re not watching carefully. Do you remember what Jesus called them?
He called them laborers and he called them lambs.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
Those are very specific choices of language for Jesus, and very vivid images. Let’s think about what they might mean.
We’ve already realized that they’re being sent out without the traditional types of resources that they might want—extra clothes, a bag to carry things in, and money.
So what does Jesus equip them with?
These two identities: laborer and lamb.
He didn’t give them what they thought they needed and wanted in order to do this ministry.
He told them who they were, and that equipped them to do the ministry.
What can we make of that?
Are the roles of “laborer” and “lamb” powerful? Do they depict strength and wealth and high status?
Obviously not. Laborers in every society have been basically at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder—yet more evidence that Jesus preached downward mobility throughout his ministry.
And the work of laborers is demanding. It is often physically exhausting. It takes a toll.
But look at it from the other side.
The work of a laborer is to build something. And that something is real, physical, observable.
A laborer doesn’t build theories or ideas. A laborer digs ditches or plants vineyards or constructs buildings.
By calling us laborers, Jesus is telling us the work will be hard, but that there will be something real and lasting and of great value at the end.
What we do as laborers bears fruit. It changes lives. It ushers in the Kingdom.
In Jesus’ analogy, the laborer brings in the harvest.
Notice that the growth of the crop has already happened, given by God.
We don’t have to grow things from scratch.
All we have to do is be willing to do the hard work of bringing in the harvest.
Again, it’s not easy, but the end result is that people are fed.
That sounds like gospel work to me, whether it’s bodies, minds, or spirits who feast on God’s plenty.
What about the image of the lamb?
Of course this image has deep resonance throughout the Bible.
In the Hebrew scriptures, the Passover Lamb was a symbol of both sacrifice and protection.
The lamb died so its blood could be smeared above the doorpost as a signal and a sign that the children in the home would not be visited by the angel of death. The unmarked homes of the Egyptians were not spared, and their firstborn sons died in the most terrible of the plagues of Exodus.
So the lamb was a symbol of death, but it was also a symbol of God’s protection from death. The death of the lamb prevented the death of the Israelite children.
This symbol reached a new resonance in the New Testament, when John the Baptist sees Jesus and proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
We use this phrase in our liturgy to this day at the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist.
And the lamb who was slain, standing on the throne, is one of the most potent images in Revelation.
You’ll often see this symbol in churches, especially on pulpits, a lamb carrying a white flag or standard, to signify sacrifice that leads to victory over death.
And now Jesus is calling us lambs!
The lamb is a powerful theological symbol, and we can be certain Jesus didn’t choose it lightly.
Jesus talks in other places of sheep and goats, naming himself as the Good Shepherd. But here he specifically calls us lambs sent out among wolves.
This is the identity he gives us to pair with the identity of laborers, and I think it’s significant.
The laborer may be poor and unimportant in society, but she is capable and productive. He is helping to build up the kingdom.
But the lamb is something different.
The lamb’s most important work is to die to protect the vulnerable, and the lamb’s death is what leads through sin and death to resurrected life.
That’s a little scary. I can probably get on board with being a laborer, but I’m not sure I want to be a lamb.
But what we realize is that Jesus is doing exactly what he said he would do. Luke says Jesus “sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
Think for a moment about Jesus himself.
What was he? He was a laborer and a lamb.
He spent his life working for the Kingdom of God, first in preparing himself for his ministry, and then for three sustained years of healing, feeding, and teaching the people.
He labored and built the community that would carry his message forward.
He was a laborer in his life.
And he was a lamb in his death.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth,” we read in Isaiah.
He gave his life to save ours.
He willingly bore the sin and pain of the world, taking it into himself to be redeemed and transformed.
And he gave his literal body up to suffering and death to shield us from the victory of darkness. He was the Lamb of God.
So Jesus, the laborer for the Kingdom and the Lamb of God, is naming us as laborers and lambs and sending us out ahead of him.
The thing that staggers me throughout the gospels is the enormous amount of trust Jesus puts in his disciples.
And the crazy part is how very little they’ve done to earn that trust. Most of the time they are confused at best and actively resisting his message at worst.
Nonetheless, here, at a very important moment in his ministry, he sends them out to heal and teach and proclaim the Kingdom of God, entrusting them with sacred identities that he bears himself.
We are sent out as laborers and as lambs, and these identities are our touchstones.
We don’t need money and supplies and other outward signs of security.
Being named by Jesus is all we need.
So if we are to follow Jesus, we will embrace a life of labor and death as a lamb.
The life of labor pretty much makes sense—gospel work is hard work.
It means accepting how our own hearts need to change, loving one another with patience and forgiveness, and serving those in need.
What does “death as a lamb” look like for us regular folks?
We’re not going to be crucified like Jesus or martyred like many of the disciples.
For us, death as a lamb means being willing to give up privilege and power and yes, even some of our wealth.
Death as a lamb means sacrifice, a word we don’t hear much in our consumer society.
It means giving things up and giving of ourselves for the sake of justice and for the sake of peace.
It means trusting that letting go of what we’re clinging to, whether it’s ideas or traditions or things, will lead in the transformative power of the Cross to a new life of joy and resurrection that we could never imagine when we so feared the sacrifice to begin with.
And here is the final and beautiful encouragement from Jesus in this passage that at first seems so intimidating.
When he sends us out as his laborers and his lambs, he tells us that there is no way to fail.
Success does not depend on us—in fact, “success” is not even the goal. “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”
Sometimes our ministry efforts, our attempts to be laborers and lambs, are going to go great.
And sometimes they’re going to crash and burn.
Jesus says, “No matter what, you are helping bring in the Kingdom. You can’t get this wrong.”
There is no success or failure, there is only faithfulness. That is what it means to be a laborer and a lamb.
I guess I have to face the fact that if Jesus said, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” he’s probably not going to make an exception for my preference to go nowhere without my prayerbook and lipstick.
I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a laborer and a lamb, but I trust Jesus, and if that’s what he names me to be, that’s what I’m going to try to be.
I’m so glad he’s sending us out together.
And I have faith, that together we can fulfill what the original disciples did. Luke says, “The seventy returned with joy.”
So let us go out with courage, knowing that Jesus is waiting to welcome us home and hear the stories of our adventures.
When we give our life and our death to him with utter freedom and trust, there is no other way to come home but with joy.
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