Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Soggy bread and saving souls

Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again. Ecclesiastes 11:1.

I first heard this verse from the strange little book of Ecclesiastes when I was a very young Christian. It intrigued me – what on earth could it mean? Why would anyone want to “cast their bread on the waters” (and no, I don’t think the writer is talking about feeding the ducks in the park).

And even if your bread did indeed return to you “after many days”, wouldn’t it be, well, a bit soggy by that time? Yuck!

It is, of course, a figure of speech, a perfect example of how there are times when the Bible is emphatically not to be taken literally.

(A quick digression… Do you insist on always taking the Bible literally? All right, you’re entitled to do that, of course – but next time I meet you I shall expect to find you dressed like an angel and with very greasy hair: turn back a page or two to Ecclesiastes 9:8. More seriously, I think most Christians recognise that the alarming words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 – “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away… if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away” – are words we should take very seriously, yes, but not literally.)

Back to Ecclesiastes 11:1… The most likely interpretation of this figure of speech is this: We should invest our time, energy, gifts and money as diversely and generously as possible, in order to ensure a good return. That return may be something we never see in this life; but don’t worry, it will come.

Perhaps the basic thought is of a merchant with a fleet of ships loading them up with grain (there’s the “bread”) and sending them out here, there and everywhere, and then waiting for the profits to come rolling in.

The Message translation omits the mention of bread altogether and puts it like this: “Be generous. Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns”. Likewise the Contemporary English Version: “Be generous, and some day you will be rewarded”.

A little further on there is another verse which seems to say much the same thing in a slightly different way: “Sow your seed in the morning, and in the evening don’t let your hands be idle; for you don’t know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (verse 6).

Well, if you know of a better interpretation than this I would be glad to hear from you!

Perhaps the nearest New Testament equivalent is Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Sow the seed of God’s word! And of course sow good deeds daily. You never know when your seed will bear fruit. And then there is Paul: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

Whatever, it all seems to be about being busy, active, enthusiastic and generous in our work for God and indeed in our everyday living. Put little in, and you’ll get little out. Simple, really.

What about you and me? Is this the story of our lives? If we need a bit of encouragement, let’s remember this: nothing done in Jesus’ name and for the glory of God will ever be in vain. It may be simply a friendly word to the woman at the supermarket check-out, or a phone call asking about someone’s health, or a small gift to someone going through difficult times.

And it’s true even when what we do or say seems to sink unnoticed and without trace, like a stone into a pond. It may seem lost to us, but it isn’t to God.

Here’s John Wesley. I love this quote (I only wish I lived up to it better!):
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can

Yes? Yes!

Or, as someone else put it, though perhaps a little less seriously: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and it will come back buttered…”

Lord, help me to fill every minute of every day with acts and deeds done for the glory of Jesus, confident that one day they will produce a generous return – yes, even if I never live to see it. Amen.

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