Good morning, Friends!
This fall we’ve been looking at a lot of different verses from the Old Testament. It’s good for us to get to know the entire Bible better. And it’s good for us to get to know some of the verses which inspire our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Today’s reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes, which is one of the shortest books in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s the source of some of our most favorite, familiar quotations.
Ecclesiastes comes right after the book of Psalms and the book of Proverbs, and it’s usually referred to as one of the “wisdom” books of the Bible.
You want to know a little bit of trivia? Ecclesiastes almost didn’t make it into the Bible. When the Jewish scholars were putting Old Testament together, they almost decided to leave Ecclesiastes out of it. It almost didn’t make the final cut.
For one thing, it doesn’t include any history. It doesn’t tell the story of God’s people, the way books like Genesis and Exodus do. It doesn’t include any prayers, the way the Psalms do.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t have any prophetic words in it – not once in the entire book does the writer say, “Thus says the Lord. . .” or anything like that. It doesn’t rip the politicians for being bad. It doesn’t talk about oppression and social injustice.
Ecclesiastes is really the private reflections of a thoughtful individual, someone who is thinking about life. And it isn’t a neat, consistent essay in philosophy.
It rambles. It has a lot more questions than answers. And it’s kind of pieced together, like a scrapbook of thoughts collected at different times.
Probably the most famous part of Ecclesiastes is where it says:
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to reap,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to break and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together,
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. . .Ecclesiastes 3:1-4,7
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. . .”
Ecclesiastes dares to ask the questions which almost no one else in the Bible dares to ask:
“. . .the fate of human beings and the fate of animals is the same. . .they all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over animals. . .all go to the same place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?”Ecclesiastes 3:19-21
But then it says,
“Whoever is joined with life has hope; a living dog is better than a dead lion. . .Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white, and do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life. . .Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might. . .”Ecclesiastes 3:4, 7-10
Anyway, Ecclesiastes has some interesting verses in it. But there’s one verse which has been a head-scratcher for generations of people, for hundreds of years. I think I found twenty different explanations for what it means.
It’s just one verse. Here it is:
Cast your bread upon the waters, for it will return to you after many days. . .Ecclesiastes 11:1
A lot of people have heard those words, and scratched their heads, and asked, “What the heck does that mean?”
One pretty direct idea is that it means to give generously to charity. Give to the poor. Give to those who need it. “Cast your bread upon the waters. . .”
The support for this comes from the very next verse – “Share what you have with seven or eight others, because you never know when disaster may strike. . .”
It’s a nice idea. “Be good to other people. Maybe someday they’ll be good to you. What goes around, comes around. Be generous, and some day you’ll be rewarded.”
I can’t argue with that, but I also can’t make too much out of it. Because right before that are a whole bunch of disconnected sayings.
“Some people are too lazy to fix a leaky roof; then the house falls in.” (Ecclesiastes 10:18)
“Eating and drinking make you feel happy, and bribes can buy you everything you need.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19) I’m not sure if that’s the kind of advice we want to be handing out!
“Don’t curse the government, even in your thoughts; don’t curse the rich, even in your bedroom. . .” (Ecclesiastes 10:20) I guess they think maybe the CIA or Elon Musk might be listening!
“Rain clouds always bring rain; trees always stay wherever they fall. . .” (Ecclesiastes 11:3) Well, duh!
“If you worry about the weather and don’t plant seeds, you won’t harvest a crop. . .” (Ecclesiastes 11:4) OK, I guess that makes sense.
That’s the kind of material which surrounds today’s verse on either side. I don’t think there’s enough of a connection here, to say that it definitely applies to charitable giving.
“Cast your bread upon the waters; for after many days it will return to you. . .”
On the face of it, this seems like pretty pointless advice. I mean, picture this: go down to the river, and take a loaf of bread, and toss it in. What’s the Bible talking about here – feeding the ducks?
I even found one writer, who said it means, “Ship your grain overseas, some day you’ll make a big profit!” I’m not to sure about that. I don’t think they had big grain ships, 1,000 years before Jesus.
Whatever it means, it seems to have something to do with taking risks. There’s a lot of uncertainty in life. We’ve got ups and downs. Today there’s climate change, wars, droughts, all kinds of things.
We have to take risks. And as it says all the time in those ads on TV, “Your results may vary!”
Teachers “cast their bread on the waters” every day in the classroom. They do their best, but teachers never know which kid is going to grow up to be the president of a big corporation, and which kid’s going to spend the rest of their life playing video games. Teachers wait a long time before they see the results of their work. So do preachers. So do churches.
Maybe “cast your bread on the waters” means that you take a risk, and do your very best. I was talking about this verse with my wife this week, and she remembered her mother saying, “If you cast your bread on the waters, make sure it’s Pepperidge Farm!”
I found a really different idea this week while I was reading, something I’d never seen before. Every year, our Jewish cousins celebrate a holiday called Rosh Hashanah. It’s the start of the Jewish new year.
It comes in the fall, and it’s the traditional holiday for the birth of Adam and Eve. It’s also the start of a ten day season called Yom Kippur, when Jews confess their sins from the past year, and ask God for forgiveness.
Anyway, I discovered that many Jews have a special custom during Rosh Hashanah. The custom is called Tashlikh, and they go to a stream or a river or to the beach, and they shake their clothes out over the water. It symbolizes shaking out their sins and failures during the past year.
Many Jews also throw pieces of bread into the water as part of the ritual. On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews go to the big bridges in New York and other cities, to “cast bread on the water”. So, that’s another possible meaning of the verse.
I read one person who said that it has to do with planting rice in shallow water. You put your rice seed in a shallow, muddy area that floods in season, and by and by you’ll get a rice crop. That works.
When we were living in Indiana, one of our neighbors was the great Quaker teacher, Elton Trueblood. He was a great believer in investing in the future, even when we couldn’t see the results. Elton Trueblood used to say, “It takes a noble person to plant a seed for a tree that will someday give shade to people he may never meet.”
I think about that a lot, with some of the things we do here, and all the people who haven’t even started coming to Springfield yet.
It’s not just about us. We plant seeds for generations which are just now being born. We want there to be faithful Christians in our grandchildren’s generation.
Jesus certainly knew about this verse from Ecclesiastes. Jesus had a lot to say about doing good, and paying it forward.
The Good Samaritan, who stopped by the side of the road, didn’t know the person he helped. And after the Good Samaritan went off down the road, he maybe never knew if the good that he did changed the man’s life or not.
Jesus used to say, “Give to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”
He used to say, “Whoever loses his life, will find it.”
Jesus told a story one time, about a person who went out into the field, to plant seeds. He said some seed fell on rocky ground, and other seed got choked by weeds. But the seed that fell on good soil, Jesus said, gave back sixty or a hundred times what was planted. That sounds a little like what we’re talking about.
When Jesus called Peter and the others, it says they were casting their nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. And Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” and they left everything to go with Jesus.
Peter and his friends gave up their living to follow Jesus. They didn’t just give what was in their wallets, they gave up their livelihood, their daily bread. They “cast their bread on the water” in a really different way.
I don’t know which one of these different ideas is the real meaning of Ecclesiastes. Maybe it’s all of them. It’s funny how one verse can be so rich in meaning!
It’s not one of those verses that are really straightforward, like “Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery.”
Cast your bread upon the waters, for it will return to you after many days. . .
I guess it’s up to each and every one of us to find out what that means, and how to live it.
I don’t think it means just throwing a few crumbs out there. I think it’s more demanding than that.
God invites us to take a risk, to give something away, and realize it may take a lifetime before we see the result.
Sometimes a verse like this can change our lives.