The Harvest Is Abundant: Reflections on a Spirituality of Service

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In this article Pamela Reidy looks at service from a spiritual perspective and calls religious educators to teach students the difference between "merely doing good and being a disciple." Starting with the Gospel of Luke as a "primer" on discipleship, the author states that the seventy-two who were sent out in the tenth chapter of Luke possessed the virtues of simplicity, wisdom, intuition, resilience, and compassion. Examples and stories highlight each of these virtues and provide much food for thought.

Service is a golden word these days. Everybody's doing it: governmental bodies, schools, churches, even neighborhoods and families. Court sentencing frequently includes community service, the federal government holds service up as a value in programs such as Americorps, and state governments are increasingly legislating service requirements for all who graduate from their public schools.

As community-service requirements are being added to science classes and confirmation programs, it is essential for religious educators to articulate the difference between merely doing good and being a disciple, between completing a school requirement and a confirmation requirement, between simply doing something nice and coming from a spirituality of service.

Luke: A Primer on Discipleship

Luke's Gospel devotes the entire tenth chapter to discipleship. In calling for a spirituality of service, it shares wisdom on everything from missioning for service to the hazards, pitfalls, warnings--and inherent privileges--associated with the work. Taking care to instruct us with special emphasis on the focus of ministry, which is to love God and our neighbor, Luke shows that discipleship involves more than good action. He uses the classic good Samaritan tale as his climax, and he finishes with the scene of Martha's and Mary's hospitality to Jesus, offering two complementary examples of servant relationship.

Luke, chapter ten, can easily be used as a primer for moving from community service to true discipleship. Like the seventy-two in the scene that opens chapter ten of Luke, we, too, are missioned for discipleship, and we are to minister as followers of One who is Perfect Love. What an awesome challenge!

The Experience of the Seventy-Two

I often think about the seventy-two, for these original ministers offer hope and a model of spirituality for service work. I find myself wondering if the original seventy-two felt overwhelmed by the challenges, or exhilarated by the prospects, of being so few in number and of being "lambs among wolves."

Further, I wonder if the prospect of being poor, without money or food or shoes, with a directive to offer no greeting along the way, inspired them or depressed them. The excitement of the new and different, the possibility of travel (even with its inherent risks), the meeting of and getting to know new people can overshadow the tremendous responsibilities associated with answering the call. Working with the poor can so easily be romanticized when one is weak on experience. In short, I wonder if they knew just what they were getting into.

The way of life that the seventy-two lived offers us real insight into Jesus' expectations of a disciple. They were expected to travel in poverty and to remain untouched by the business of other travelers. They were expected to enter houses and determine whether peace resided there or not; to eat and drink only what was offered; to return to that same house and ask for more; to do the strenuous work of curing and healing, preaching and teaching the Reign of God; and to kick off the dust, leaving the un-concerned behind. At the same time, they needed to keep their own heart alive. A tall order to say the least!

Perhaps, though, in their acceptance and willingness to agree to such terms, we can find a spirituality that will help us to see the difference between discipleship and community service. A closer look at the situation of the seventy-two reveals some specific virtues and qualities helpful in distinguishing between simply doing good things and performing holy acts of discipleship: simplicity, wisdom, intuition, resilience, and compassion. The particular edicts of Jesus to the seventy-two demanded such qualities.


The seventy-two were required to live a simple life--there is no getting around it. The extras had to go; there simply was no room for them. Simplicity helped them to focus on the mission. The talk around the fire wasn't about how to obtain the best quality sandal for the cheapest price or how to spend their money in the city, nor was it an issue of how heavy one's knapsack was. There was to be "no money bag, no sack, no sandals." These things did not get in the way because they did not exist.

Today's young disciples need to be countercultural. While the world vies for their economic and material attention, being a young disciple requires the capacity to do without material goods. In traveling to Haiti to do missionary work with high schoolers, I stand in awe of their ability to leave behind the world of Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean.

Teens who are willing and able to travel lightly, without all the trappings the media insist they need, are testament to the call and power of discipleship. In preparing for Haiti, each new group of travelers eventually shortens their list of personal possessions in favor of traveling with articles for the poor. Arms empty of personal property are now filled with "good things" for the poor. Not only do these teens discover the freedom of personal simplicity, but they make a real material difference to the poor.

Jesus' admonishment to "greet no one along the way" is an interesting component of discipleship. Jesus suggests that walking in con-templative silence from place to place will better prepare one to minister. Not only does contemplation produce a spirituality of simplicity, it also creates spiritual energy and support and trust among the ministers. Unable to converse at the superficial level that travelers usually do, disciples prepare their heart for meeting the challenges that lie ahead.

Perhaps Jesus didn't want the seventy-two to talk to others along the way so that they would build community among themselves; maybe it was simply to keep their focus on their mission; or, indeed, maybe it was to protect them from the "danger stranger." Whatever the specific reason, we disciples are definitely to remain in focus, on task, and communally together. A discipleship of service rooted in the contemplative seeks the presence of God among others and finds spiritual energy unique to Christian service.


In sending forth the seventy-two, Jesus didn't tell them very much. He wasn't specific about where to go, whom to look for, where to start. He was sending them as precursors to his own arrival, announcing the Reign of God, but with little in the way of specific direction. He expected them to discern things and make decisions on their own; in this we see that wisdom is intrinsic to discipleship.

Wisdom reflects a knowledge from within that "God's ways are not our ways." It is both known and felt--a feminine, warm movement of the Spirit that takes us deep beneath the surface to the heart of a matter. The complexities that underlie the social ills of today's world must not make us underestimate the importance of "heart knowledge." Young people possess this kind of wisdom, as they are often deeply affected by new experiences and the eyes of their heart are anxious to see new things. The young person's way of knowing is pure of heart. This is why Jesus calls us to "'become like little children'" (Matthew 18:3). When we lose vision, we lose heart; conversely, having heart sharpens our vision.

While attending a party that several of my students had given for a group of Special Olympians, I clearly saw that wisdom is a necessary gift in order for us to love what we do not understand. Some students were better than others at knowing exactly how to help these severely disabled youngsters achieve specific tasks. As my students helped the Special Olympians make Mother's Day cards, it was obvious that a connection of the heart, not a skill in technique, made the difference between those who could effectively offer help and those who could not. Moreover, those who loved encountered the truth that "God's ways are not our ways," and they were not afraid of that truth. Love and wisdom open-ed new doors. Discipleship is first and foremost a matter of the heart.


In sending the disciples on their mission, Jesus told them to enter a house and give it a greeting of peace. Further, he stated, "'If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.'" How would these disciples know? What skill or gift would help them to identify peace that was present and peace that returned to them unaccepted?

Jesus' command to the disciples calls for a special kind of perceptiveness--the gift of intuition, which is one more way of knowing. Intuition serves the task at hand by bringing to consciousness the experience one holds inside. Learning to use intuition gets us in touch with our inner self; it brings to the surface what we know from past experiences yet have not necessarily processed or put into words or action. Intuition helps us to be creative in solving problems or in working with complex situations.

Interpersonal relationships in discipleship also require intuition. The seventy-two certainly needed it in order to make necessary judgments about who had peace and who didn't. Because we can be frightened by experiences that are new and different, we need to learn to rely on our gut feelings and our experiences. We need intuition for service because the Spirit moves intui-tively, within creative inspiration.

Practicing and relying on our intuitive sense can help us to meet with grace those awkward moments for which we are not prepared. Several years ago, seniors in my Peace Through Justice course were required to develop a project to fill a need in the local area, secure the project's funding, and provide for its continuance after their graduation. These astute seniors discovered that no Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were available for women with children, and so they decided to offer child care to women who wanted to attend an AA meeting. They did amazing research and outstanding work on child care. Collaborating with an area agency that served young people, they carefully plan-ned out the details, not missing a where or a how or a who. They received two thousand dollars from a local foundation, and they used local resources, both people and material resources, to the utmost.

Finally opening night arrived. With all things ready, my exclusively white, middle- and upper-middle-class female students waited at the doors for women to arrive for the AA meeting with their children. As women of color began walking in, one of my students came to me with a panicked look on her face and said, "Ms. Reidy, how do you talk to a black person?" Never had it occurred to me to include such a matter in the educational framework of their project. Never had it occurred to them that women of color might be there.

I told this young girl to be herself, to reach into her own heart and speak as she would to anyone, to reach into past experiences of meeting new and different people, and most important, not to worry about the words. She struggled, as did her counterpart, for it took intuition, heart, wisdom, and love to come to realize that there isn't a difference in the way you speak to a person whose skin isn't the same color as yours. Her gut needed to affirm that we are all people and we speak the same language--the language of the heart.

Intuition is a gift I saw many times during the course of those Thursday night gatherings as my young students learned to care for young babies, guide young children, and relate to women of color who were alcoholic.


Being a lamb among wolves requires some skill, some patience, and some knowledge and fear of things stronger than you. The disciple needs a resilience that transcends assumed limitations. Such a transcendence sharpens the vision, enlightens the heart, and moves one closer to understanding the mysterious ways of God. Resilience practiced also helps to discipline the service giver.

When students in our school enter their junior year, they choose a Love-in-Action. This is their entrance into discipleship. It represents minimally a two-hour-a-week service contract at the same site for a two-year period, resulting in at least 120 hours devoted to the same site prior to graduation. In the early days of their service, I so often think of my young students as lambs among wolves. Resilience is the virtue I pray they will have.

The needed pliability and flexibility for standing at the copy machine or doing the countless other mundane tasks of the new recruit is the first test of their resilience. Many young people spend plenty of hours "being shown" rather than having a chance "to do," as their impatient heart longs for the freedom of being treated like an adult. While "the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few," the young disciple can be "low on the totem pole" for too long a time!

The hardest test of the students' resilience is to hang in there for the long haul doing what they committed to do: visiting the elderly, recycling cans, playing in preschool settings with cranky children just up from their nap, tutoring elementary students who are falling behind, or teaching religious education at their local parish. After a while they may experience service as just one more humdrum thing to do in their busy life.

Resilience will rekindle discipleship, providing both the flexibility and the endurance that Jesus knew the original seventy-two needed in order to proclaim the coming Reign of God. The disciple must become pliable, supple, and buoyant. These qualities help to develop a spirituality that can move with the Spirit, marking a unique difference between one involved in simply doing good and one encountering God in the process.


The queen of virtues for discipleship is compassion. Taken from the Latin word meaning "to suffer with," compassion is represented in its purest form on the Cross of Christ. For any disciple who follows where Jesus leads, suffering will ultimately become a reality. Discipleship will take us out of our comfort zone and into the sufferings of others.

Jesus' presence among the ana-wim--poor and outcast people--when he walked this earth shows us that we are not to serve only among those who are comfortable materially. Sooner or later, if we want to give service directly to Christ, we will give service to the anawim, adopting as our own Jesus' preferential option for the poor.

Luke 13:10-17 relates an incident that we can learn from: One Sabbath day when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a woman was there, "crippled by a spirit," fully bent over, with no ability at all to stand erect. She had been that way for eighteen years. Jesus called out to her, saying, "Woman, you are set free of your infirmity." When Jesus laid his hand on her, she at once stood up straight and glorified God.

When we reflect on discipleship among the poor, the bent woman provides a good image for us. It can be difficult to straighten ourselves up and to pick up our head to meet Jesus in the poor. Sometimes, like another woman in the Gospel (Luke 8:40-56), we are able only to touch the hem of his garment, for the rate at which the lifeblood of our culture hemorrhages through us prevents even the simple gesture of standing erect to face him. It is so difficult to touch him, to get to him, to be with Jesus in the poor. The dirt, the disgust, the poverty, the pain, the ridiculousness of it all is such a distraction. We are bent, humbled, and limited. At best we touch only the edge of Jesus in the poor before we can even stand again.

How great the divide between the rich and the poor, the "haves" and the "have nots," the "I cans" and the "I cannots." But we trust, because like the bent woman, we do not have to look directly into Jesus' eyes to receive his grace; by merely touching his hem, we will meet him eye to eye.

My experiences with today's young people confirm that many of them are being called to work directly with people who are materially poor. As the divide between rich people and poor people becomes greater as the world gets smaller technologically, religious educators have a special duty to accept the call to a discipleship that stands erect, face-to-face with Jesus in the poor. Only then can we help to prepare the next generation to bring justice, not just charity, to the world.

Luke is kind enough to include the return of the seventy-two in his account of discipleship. He tells us that the seventy-two returned "rejoicing." They were happy that even demons were subject to them; they felt success, and they loved it. Jesus told them, "'Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.'" The true joy of the disciple is in the oneness shared with God--this gift of presence, this participation in the life and love of God beyond the task of the day. It is the disciple's daily bread.

Community service--even without the dimension of discipleship--is good. We can in no way diminish the good brought about by many who are not baptized Christians or who do not identify themselves as disciples but who serve generously nonetheless. We who are Christians, however, do clearly possess a treasure--a gift that is Jesus the Christ. Enlightened and enriched by the Lukan account of discipleship, we rejoice in the call to bring our young people into this beautiful mystery. "The harvest is abundant."

Pamela Reidy teaches religion at Notre Dame Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. Until recently she coordinated the service projects and requirements there. Now she is coordinating efforts of her school and two other schools to begin a service program in Kenya, Africa.


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Published April 1, 1998.