In 2 Corinthians 1:24, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Church: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.” The apostolic office, he explains, is not about dominion, but about encouragement and joy. What does the fruit of genuine apostolic labor look like? Not a cowed subservience, but believers being given a hand up to stand on their own two feet.
This, I submit, is as good a description of Gandalf’s ministry in Middle-earth as may be found. There’s far more to be said on this subject than I’m able to say here (for another reflection on the same subject, see here), but here are a few pertinent passages. The first is Gandalf’s statement to Denethor that, although the “rule of no realm” is his, he too, like Denethor, is nonetheless a “steward”: “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.” Gandalf’s stewardship, in other words, is an apostolic stewardship, a ministry not of ruling over others, but of seeing to it that there remain living beings free to rule over themselves.
A second passage is from Tolkien’s infamously long letter to Milton Waldman, in which he describes the ministry of the Istari or “Wizards,” again in explicitly angelic, but by extension, also recognizably apostolic terms:
they were as one might say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guardian Angels. Their powers are directed primarily to the encouragement of the enemies of evil, to cause them to use their own wits and valour, to unite and endure. They appear always as old men and sages, and though (sent by the powers of the True West) in the world they suffer themselves, their age and grey hairs increase only slowly. Gandalf whose function is especially to watch human affairs (Men and Hobbits) goes on through all the tales. (Letters no. 131)
A third and final passage is Gandalf’s statement to the Hobbits toward the end of The Return of the King:
‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’
As apostle to the Hobbits, Gandalf’s task has not been to take care of the Hobbits so much as it has been to “train” them, through word and deed, to take care of themselves and their people. The success of this training is implicit in Frodo’s words to Sam later on in the book that his objective was to “save the shire, and it has been saved.” This, incidentally, is also why the “scouring of the Shire” is so important as a conclusion to the whole saga, for in it we see the fruit of all Gandalf’s great labor, and in it the reader himself is, in a sense, asked whether he, by undergoing this journey as well, has not been similarly equipped and charged with scouring his own “Shire,” wherever or whatever that may be.
Gandalf’s speech here to the Hobbits is interesting for another, related reason, which is that it recollects the speech of that great “apostle of apostles” before departing from his Hobbit-disciples and leaving them to accomplish their great task which was nothing less than to “scour” the world through their message of God’s triumph over sin and death. I conclude with a string of verses from John chapters 14-17:
“Verily, verly, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father….” (14:12) “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (15:15-16) “”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (16:7). “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (16:33).