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Cast Bread and Sow Seeds

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6) Spoken on: October 30, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev Enoch Keong
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: 传道书,Ecclesiastes

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About Rev Enoch Keong: Rev. Keong is currently serving as a pastor in the youth and young adult ministries, as well as the John zone pastor in Jubilee Church.

Title: Cast Bread and Sow Seeds
Date: 30th Oct & 6th Nov 2016
Preacher: Rev. Enoch Keong
Text: Eccl 11:1-6

Our text this morning is “very Ecclesiastes”. I mean the book of Ecclesiastes, and especially the portion just read, tend to leave us perplexed. And perplexity is a good enough deterrent to make many wanting to keep a distance from this book, apart from verses such as “He has made everything beautiful in its time. (3:11)” But although the book can be perplexing at times, it is also penetrating and pastoral. So let’s unpack the difficult sayings in this passage this morning to lift the veil of perplexity and let The Preacher’s insights and words of comfort speak to us.

“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” is the first and the toughest saying in the list. This saying has 2 main lines of interpretation, one much older and one offered by interpreters fairly recently. The newer interpretation understands ‘bread’ to refer to merchandises. “Cast your bread upon the waters” according to this interpretation refers to sending commodities and produce overseas via the rivers and the oceans to expand the customer base. Should we adopt this interpretation, the second verse that reads, “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight” would be referring to diversification of investments. Instead of putting all the eggs into one basket, one should diversify one’s investment to hedge against bad times since no one knows “what disaster may happen on earth”. In order words, we have here a sound advice on business.

Happy with this explanation? We mentioned that there’s a much older interpretation, which I think is probably closer to The Preacher’s intent. The older interpretation understands ‘bread’ as referring to food, and casting bread as giving food supplies away. According to this interpretation, the second verse would mean to give freely and generously. And not knowing if there will be bad times down the road shouldn’t discourage giving. In short, we are encouraged to be spontaneous in generosity.

There are a few reasons for preferring the older to the newer interpretation. First, similar sayings are found amongst Israel’s neighbors. There’s an Egyptian version which says, “Do a good deed and throw it in the water; when it dries you will find it”[1] . And then there’s a Turkish version that goes, “Do good, cast bread into the water; if the fish does not know it, God will.”[2] There is also an Arabic Tale apart from these sayings that echoes the same message: there was a boy who threw bread into the water daily, what he did ended up saving the life of a prince. The prince in the story nearly drowned downstream but managed to climb onto a rock. Stranded and helpless, the bread that flowed downstream daily kept him alive. In the end, the boy was rewarded for his spontaneous act.[3] The sayings and the story suggest to us that casting bread was probably an idiom for spontaneous generosity. Let me add just one more reason for preferring to older interpretation: the first saying ends with, “you will find it after many days”. In business, no one look toward finding ‘it’, as in finding the same thing. Business people aim for returns and profits, not the principle sum. And we will be stretching the meaning too much if we think that the pronoun ‘it’ refers to profit.

So, we are urged to be spontaneous in showing generosity. And the way the original Hebrew is worded stresses that finding the bread after many days isn’t the reason for casting it on waters. In other word, as God’s people we are to exercise generosity, to do so even though our future is in no way guaranteed, and to do so without expecting any repayment.

This is a necessary reminder for us, but doesn’t all of these sound like trite and boring moralistic teaching? In any case, just keep in mind his first point – be spontaneous in showing generosity. There is one more point that he will now throw out. And when we put the two together, we will see what he is really getting at.

The next two sayings are not as challenging, and we quickly get the sense of what they are saying when we read them as a pair:

If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

Oh well, the one about the tree is still not the easiest to grasp. But the verse as a whole makes it clear that natural phenomena follow natural law: rain comes when the cloud is full; a tree uprooted falls to the ground due of gravity. Nature is in this sense predictable.

But as to when these natural processes will take place, no one knows for sure. And in the case of the farmer in verse 4 the question then becomes, “what then will he do in view of the uncertainties?” Will he go about sowing and reaping, or will he stand and do nothing for fear that the wind will blow away the seeds and the rain might destroy the harvest? What would be the correct mindset and attitude that he and also we are to have?

The Preacher gives his take on the matter in the final verses:

“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”

The analogy on the formation of the baby highlights the fact that human knowledge is but limited. So, anyone who thinks that he or she can get every calculation in place and every preparation done before executing a task must be naïve. This is what The Preacher thinks, but the body of knowledge has grown a whole lot over the years. May it be in the field of meteorology or obstetrics & gynecology, The Preacher has no idea how much more is known today. And if neither of these ‘ologies’ is our cup of tea, then we are at least at the consumers’ end of technologies. We have today every app on our smartphones to help us do our calculation and planning. We have apps ranging from bus timing, to currencies, to the availability of stock of merchandises to help us plan our time and control our spending. Yet, we still live a life full of variables that can cause fear in us and sent us into franticness. Parents and grandparent amongst us might have encountered a difficulty in recent times, trying to find 1 box of mosquito patch in an entire shopping mall.

And there are of course variables that won’t cause franticness but paralysis or inaction. For the farmer, he was stunned by the possibility of the wind and the rain. For us it could be anything. It could be a project in a totally new field issued to us in school or at work. Or it could be to live with someone we don’t quite know as yet, like our in-laws or a new helper. Or it could be to read a profound sounding book like Ecclesiastes.

Whatever it might be, as long as being disadvantaged is our concern, The Preacher urges us to take some risk and try them out, and to do so by trusting that God whose work makes everything, will be our help.

This may sound uncomfortable or way too natural a thing for us to do, depending on which type of Christian we are. There are Christians, who must pray and sense God’s leading before embarking on something new or big, and there are Christians who just launch readily into anything and God comes either later or last or never allowed a play a part.

Neither is in the The Preacher’s eyes Christian spiritualty. A follower of God should be one who constantly seeks to fulfil his responsibilities with God’s help. A spiritual person is to be like a farmer who keeps looking for the opportune moments to sow and reap. Yes, there is the wind and the rain which is really hard to say, but he just does what he is called to do by trusting that God will bless. And this is what verse 6 is about. ” In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand” does not mean that the farmer or anyone of us is to work non-stop day and night, but to say that anytime is a good time for finding opportunities to do what one is supposed to do.

Fulfil one’s responsibilities with God’s help is his second point. But the actual message he has for us will only be out when we put together the 2 focuses. Spontaneous in generosity and fulfilling of responsibilities, one is for the good of others, the other more for the good of oneself. In both cases he says there are the things known and things unknown that might cause one to hold back and not do that which is good and the necessary. But The Preacher at the same time points us to The One behind and above all phenomena and conditions, him we know but his work we don’t. Yet his work makes everything.

The preacher is exhorting us to do every good and fulfil every responsibility that’s place in our life journey. But he is not a moral teacher. He is more like a spiritual director. He is asking us to take risks, doing so not by casting ourselves to the blind force of chance, but trusting ourselves into hands of God who give us breath and life.

Take risks when necessary and depend on God to help. If we wonder if this is an acceptable form of spirituality to God, then let’s consider the one person in the bible that quite many of us in this church have been talking about for the past few months. Some of us can’t help but keep seeing the dark side of this person; others think that it is unfair and incorrect to be judgmental about his personality and spoke up for him. It is of course Jacob that I am referring to. Those of us who attends the zone CGs have been reading and sharing and debated on his life, and we will continue to do so till Apr or May next year.

Jacob the patriarch is quite unlike his father and grandfather, the first two patriarchs jumped onto the scene as men with faith. Abraham went out from his home without betting an eyelid when God called him, and Isaac willingly went onto the rock to be chopped up when God tested Abraham.

Jacob on the other hand is quite different. We cannot say for sure that he possesses faith before he had set up a family with 4 wives and 11 of the 12 renowned sons. Before that point in time, we are told that he worked 7 years for Rachel, and then another 7 years for her because the father-in-law conned him in the initial deal. He was exploited by the father-in-law for 20 year all in all and was left a bankrupt, but he devised ways to circumvent the situation and became quite rich. Jacob in the 20 years really sweat it out and risked it all, and he met with success toward the end, but friends who have read the CG material know that his success wasn’t due to his creative means and methodologies, but because behind and above all phenomena is God who at Bethel promised to watch over him. As to whether he remembered God or not for much of those 20 years then remains a question.

But Jacob soon proved to be a man of faith. The day came when it was God who asked him to return to his homeland. The bible tells us that the once angry brother sent 400 men to meet him. The 400 were more likely to be warriors then porters. It was a huge risk for him to move ahead. Jacob risked it. He obeyed God, or we should we say he walked on by faith.

We continue to see a man of faith in the aged Jacob. When famine strikes and when the first batch of food from Egypt had finished, and when he had to risk his favorite boy Benjamin in the new procurement exercise, he says, “May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved. (Gen 43:14)"

Jacob has in time become not that different from his father and grandfather, he walked by faith. Brothers and sister in Christ, this story which involves risking and trusting God is the story of our spiritual forefathers. The Preachers is calling to the same journey of faith that our spiritual forebears had travelled. The Preacher is again calling us to give a good shot in life. He says our call is not to secure every detail to play it safe in life, but to trust God who joins us on life’s stage and who is behind and above all phenomena, whose work makes everything.

[1]Seow C. L., The Anchor Yale Bible: Ecclesiastes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 342.
[2] Ibid., 343.
[3]Ibid., 343.