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October 8: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 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. –Ecclesiastes 11:1-4

I heard a lecture recently that we are all making a mistake if we think “risk” is the real factor to consider in everything from investing to letting children do new things on their own to pursing the next big thing. Instead of “risk,” the speaker said, the real factor is “uncertainty.” Your ability to handle uncertainty will determine future success. I’m not sure if that’s a helpful distinction, but Solomon has made abundantly clear in the book of Ecclesiastes so far that uncertainty is certain in life under the sun. God’s plan and God Himself are not only uncontrollable by us, but often unknowable.

This can be paralyzing. In the previous chapter we heard about flies that sometimes get in the ointment even though you used wisdom and did a good job. Does that mean we should just give up and stop making ointment? Wisdom is superior to folly and better than weapons of war, but it is quite vulnerable to small things such as just one sinner, a bird, a snake, a rock, a fly, or a splinter (see chapters 9 & 10). All are small and apparently insignificant things. Foolishness is like that. The threat is huge from such small things. If this truth leads to the crippling inactivity of despair, Solomon offers the passage copied above.

The meaning is plain: in spite of life’s uncontrollability and vaporous outcomes, in spite of wisdom’s vulnerability, God has promised abundance when His people trust Him and risk uncertainty to serve other people. Solomon is exhorting generosity when he writes, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.

The little parable about casting your bread upon the waters is one of the most famous lines in Ecclesiastes and has been used in a myriad of different ways (not all true to the text!). The second part (“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth”) interprets the parable for us.

Obviously, throwing bread onto the water seems like an ill-advised way to invest. But he is calling wise people to be bold in their generosity and give lavishly to their neighbors. How often does wisdom seem like a losing proposition at the outset! Wisdom does not walk by sight, but by faith. This is nothing new for those who’ve followed the Wisdom Books. Don’t forget Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.” It’s a matter of faith since we cannot control life and ensure that our generosity comes back to us, but God is faithful.

The wise King Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back… give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” To follow Jesus requires faith in God’s integrity and faithfulness to keep His promises. That’s wisdom.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

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