The Omaha area is home to over 700,000 inhabitants. It boasts a large convention center and a spanking new performing arts complex. Its suburbs sprawl ever further to the south and west.
But when my wife and I moved here from Chicago four years ago, we were immediately struck by the way in which agriculture still dominates this region. Drive thirty minutes from downtown Omaha in almost any direction and you find yourself in the middle of fields of corn and soybeans. Watch the other vehicles on the road and you’ll see livestock trucks and flatbeds carrying shiny new farm machinery. Turn on the morning news, and it will still be punctuated (though less often in the past two years, perhaps, than before) with commercials for fertilizer, for tractors … and, above all, for seed.
In one of my favorite advertisements, a bemused duck that apparently wants to cross a two-lane county highway stands marooned on the verge as one massive truck after another roars past bearing bright golden grain to market. The message is clear: invest in this company’s fancy new hybrids and you will raise your yield per acre to dizzying heights. It’s simply a matter of maximizing the return on your seed-buying dollar.
Well, today’s readings make much of the extended metaphor of seeds, sowing, and the harvest. But they place the emphasis in a totally different place. These three passages encourage us to focus on the act of sowing rather than that of harvesting, to see the process of “scattering” seed “abroad” as the more critical, more satisfying part of the process, while we leave all the worries about “reaping” to God.
The reading from 2 Corinthians strikes an upbeat note. Like a friendly coach, the author encourages generosity with words that have passed into the language as a cliché: “God loves a cheerful giver.” And we needn’t worry if all our openhandedness leaves us a little short, he reassures us, because God will make sure we always have “an abundance for every good work.”
The psalmist ups the ante. While the early verses of Psalm 112 speak well of the person who is “gracious and … conducts his affairs with justice,” far more glowing praise is reserved for those who give “lavishly … to the poor.” (There’s a delightful bite to that use of the word lavishly, by the way, because we usually associate lavishness with consumption and consumerism. Again, the Bible asks us to apply that idea instead to other side of the transaction—to the act of giving.)
But it is in Jesus’ words to his disciplines as recorded in John’s Gospel that we see easily the most dramatic exploration of the seed metaphor. When seed is sown, Jesus points out, it reaches the end of its life cycle. The emergence of a new plant comes at a sacrificial cost to the seed. Analogously, we must be willing to give up our own security (whether financial or personal) if we wish to follow His example. And that’s where I for one feel the challenge.
Do I give cheerfully? Well, not always, to be sure. But more often than not, I would hope.
Do I give lavishly? That’s a tougher standard. To use the jargon of baseball, I’d be more than happy to lay claim to a .300 lifetime average on that one.
But to give sacrificially, to give in a way that truly disregards my own role as seed in the interests of the “fruit” that God will provide later, to give “until it hurts”? In my better moments, I may aspire to that level of generosity, but I don’t honestly think I can name a single time in my life when I actually achieved it—or even came close.
Which demonstrates, of course, the genius of Ignatius of Loyola’s famous prayer in which he seeks God’s help to make the leap to sacrificial giving: Dearest Lord, teach me to serve You as You deserve; to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labor and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that I am doing Your will.
I say a hearty Amen to that!
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