Harvest time

Personally, I’ve never lived on a farm, never worked a field, never waited anxiously for a crop to come in so my family could eat. But I know a little of what it means to wait expectantly for a harvest. Years ago, we had a peach tree in the backyard that gave us fragrant, delicious fruit; we looked forward to that sweet bounty every spring. This past year, we planted heirloom tomatoes in a patch of earth we could see from our living room. We’d watch the unripe fruit begin to blush, counting the days until the next one was ready to pick.

Ah, the joy of a good harvest. Metaphorically, Christians sometimes speak of a “harvest of souls,” and that’s not wrong as far as it goes. But the glorious future the Bible envisions is more than that. It isn’t just about how many people will make it into heaven. It’s about fixing a broken creation, about healing the wounds inflicted by sin.

The universe was created in peace — that rich, all-encompassing biblical notion of shalom. The harvest we look forward to is a harvest not only of souls, but of righteousness, justice, and peace. That’s why James can say, “Those who make peace sow the seeds of justice by their peaceful acts” (James 3:18, CEB). When believers act in ways that promote wholeness and shalom, they help plant the seeds of that glorious future harvest.

It’s not surprising, then, that when later in his letter James wants to teach about patience, he turns again to an agricultural metaphor:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, you must be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Consider the farmer who waits patiently for the coming of rain in the fall and spring, looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth. You also must wait patiently, strengthening your resolve, because the coming of the Lord is near. (James 5:7-8)

I think here of the Psalms, in which rain often symbolizes the care and providence of God. Before the days of mechanized and subsidized agribusiness, farmers were wholly dependent on the seasons: would the rains come? I get my food from the supermarket, so I easily take for granted that I can get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — even those out of season — any time of year, and for a reasonable price. I don’t personally understand the catastrophe of a failed crop, or the anxiety of waiting for rain.

When James speaks of farmers waiting patiently, he doesn’t mean that they’re worry-free, calmly playing solitaire while the ground cracks in the dry heat. Again, patience is longsuffering, not indifference or preternatural calm. Their patience is of a piece with their ability to look forward: to hold before their mind’s eye the harvest that comes after the waiting.

“Wait patiently,” James advises believers, particularly those in the church who were poor and being unjustly exploited by their rich brothers and sisters. These laborers aren’t unionized. They don’t have the power, status, or leverage to right the injustice. They are like the psalmists who cry out to God in the midst of persecution by their enemies: God is their only hope, their only recourse.

“Strengthen your resolve,” he tells them; literally, he’s telling them to firm up their hearts. And why? They’re not looking forward to peaches or tomatoes, but to the return of Jesus, who’s coming as Judge (James 5:9). On one side of that judicial coin will be God’s vindication of the righteous, poor, and oppressed. On the other will be the punishment of the unrighteous oppressors: this is how the chapter began, when James told the rich to “weep and wail” (vs. 1) over the judgment that would befall them for the way they were treating the poor.

Take heart, for the coming of the Lord is near, James says. How near? We’ll explore that in the next post.