Ecclesiastes gives us a treatise on life and work that, at first glance, can be depressing. He seems to write that no matter what we do, it all falls down and we die so what’s the point? Closer examination of the sermon from "the preacher" (which is what "Ecclesiastes" means) reveals a ton of wisdom. It is good to work even though what you build might fall down or pass into the hands of incompetents. It is good love even though those you love might not love you back and both you and they will die. I just want to focus on three verses today.
In Chapter 11:1,2,6 there are reasons given for our work. In verse one, our work is "bread on the water." Most of us aren’t very familiar with that phrase or concept so a little exposition is in order. Fishermen would take bread — a precious commodity — crumble it and then toss it onto a certain section of a lake, pond, or sea at the same time every day (usually at dawn or twilight). After a set number of days — often a month or more — they toss their nets at that spot. Their harvest of fishes has grown exponentially because the fish in that water were trained to come to a certain point for food. Our work is bread on the water. We don’t know how it will effect others, whom it will effect, or how far those effects will reach in space and time.
For an example, our congregation gets emails and calls every week from places as far flung as Indonesia and Switzerland and as close by as — to date — over a dozen States and three times that many cities. They come from elderships who want to come and visit Rochester to see what we are doing; to work with us in Cass Park and see our outreach ministries, etc. As we work — hard! — on interpreting scripture, we are often asked to share our research — and we do. Our work, just as in Ecclesiastes 11:1, often shows no visible results. Other times, we get hate mail, angry phone calls, and are "written up." However, just when it seems we have wasted our efforts, the bread on the water comes back to us.
In 11:2 the preacher tells us to work so that we can give to seven or eight people. This is key: We were created to WORK and GIVE, not shop, accumulate, or store. Why do we work? So that we can give. Why do we give? So that we can be truly made in the image of God who gives to all, the just and the unjust. God worked and gave and that is what we are to do. However, as this chapter indicates, our giving also is insurance. When the day of disaster comes upon us — as it comes on us all — our legacy of giving will come back to us as bread on the water. We share with others so that they, in turn, can share with us.
11:6 Tells us to work hard even when something seems to fail. We never know what will work, the verse says, so WORK. Don’t let fear keep you from striking out on a new venture. Proverbs tells us a lot about being wise about such things, of course so let’s not go nuts here and say "God made me do it." Think, work, repeat.
While work is required of us (see last blog), there are some individuals who, because of mental or social situation, cannot earn enough to live. Their work is honorable and difficult but it is not valued monetarily by our society. What happens to them? Those of us who are rewarded for our work are to give to them. God didn’t put that responsibility upon a government program, but upon us as individuals. Paul tells us that we are to work so that we can give (Ephesians 4:28). In fact, in that passage’s context, Paul indicates that to NOT give is stealing. We are to do honorable work so that we can give, not so we can enrich ourselves. Do NOT fall into the standard worldly trap here of thinking of Bill Gates, NFL stars, etc. as rich and start mumbling "those people should give more. They’re rich!" You are rich, too, if you have a place to lay down to call your own, a full belly when you want one, and more clothes than you need to get through an average week.
At the same time, God warns us throughout Proverbs not to encourage a fool. It is foolish to give money or encouragement to a fool in their foolishness (the Book of Proverbs loves the word "fool" in all its permutations). If I have a kid who wants to major in French Medieval Poetry I will take them into the back yard so that we may burn our money, thereby saving time and commuting costs. If they want to study this, then that, and keep changing their majors? I’m not going to sweat that. You see, learning about things is WORK and one day they will be paid because they have proven they know how to learn and are interested in it. The only calluses I have are on the tips of my fingers, earned by playing guitar and other stringed instruments, but I am paid better than most men with lots of calluses because of the books I’ve read, the languages I’ve learned, and the things I’ve seen and understood. That’s work. It is annoying to hear politicians despising the rich (and everyone of them is rich) and contrasting rich people with "working people." While there are some rich people who don’t work (paging Paris Hilton, paging Paris Hilton), most worked extremely hard to get where they are. And most are generous givers.
Jesus tells us to work right now! John 9:1-4 has Jesus warning his disciples that we never have as much time as we think we have. When one of my kids would say "I don’t have to do my homework tonight. It isn’t due for two weeks" I would respond "You don’t have two weeks. You have right now." What will that two weeks period hold? You may get sick, there might be storms — emotional or physical, or there might be a thousand different things that will steal away that time. Listen to Jesus and do what you need to do today. Now.
A column for another day might be how Jesus looked at the personal use of money. We know that God wasn’t an unbridled capitalist or socialist by any stretch, but it is difficult to ignore the fact that God intended for us to enjoy some of the fruits of our labor right now. In Micah 4 He gives us a picture of what a man blessed by God looks like — and he is on his own property enjoying the shade of his own tree.
Like I said, that’s a column for another day. Today, I have to get back to work!