Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Imitate the earth, O mortal. Bear fruit as it does; do not show yourself inferior to inanimate soil. After all, the earth does not nurture fruit for its own enjoyment, but for your benefit… Let the end of your harvesting be the beginning of a heavenly sowing.”
-St. Basil the Great, “On Social Justice.”
I arrived at the community garden early one morning, and followed the voices to the greenhouse at the back edge of the property. As I stepped through the door into the humidity, I was overwhelmed by the pungent aroma of soil and onions. Instead of the usual black trays of infant plants getting a good start on growth, before me were long rows of drying tables, heaped with onions – such an abundance that the metal tables had begun to tip and sink into the ground from the weight.
Soon I was told the story: the garden interns, knowing this planting of onions would soon rot in the ground, had pulled them all the day before. But the harvest they expected and the harvest they received were very different. Considering the yields from the prior year and what they’d already harvested, the garden director imagined they might pull a flat-bed trailer’s worth from the onion beds up at the nearby farm.
Instead, they filled the trailer two and a half times, plus an enclosed pickup truck bed. It was an incredible number of onions!
For the next four hours that morning, the dozen or so of us stood in the greenhouse trimming greens to remove as much bulk as possible and allow the onions to be cured and dried in one layer on the tables. About half through, a little bit intoxicated by the smell and with eyes stinging from so many onions being cut at once, my friend next to me turned and wiping tears, whispered “I still think we’re going to need more tables than this.”
In that moment, I remembered the parable from this week’s gospel, where a rich man overwhelmed by such an abundant harvest finds himself in not a little despair about what to do with the unexpected bounty.
Standing at the tables trimming, I asked one of the full-time garden staff, “What made the difference between the harvest this year and the one last year?” She explained that the level of precipitation and nutrients in the soil had come together to make the perfect conditions for a proliferation of onions. Such abundance was mostly out of our human hands, other than performing the faithful farming acts required for any kind of harvest.
In Jesus’s telling of the parable too, the overwhelming harvest was an act of the ground: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” (v. 16) In other words, this harvest was out of his human hands, an act of provision outside of his control. The conditions were right for a windfall; he only needed to figure out what to do with it.
The rich man’s solution at first sounds logical, like common sense. More grain requires more space to store it, and so he tears down small barns and replaces them with bigger barns. Perhaps his building project from a certain vantage could seem like wise stewardship.
But as it turns out, the deeper problem is less about space and more about heart, and wise stewardship requires more than savvy storage solutions.
As the story progresses, the rich man has a conversation with his soul, in which he notes that it has what it needs for many years to come. Yes, his soul should “relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
In other words, he opts not to work, opts to store his abundance away in an act of preservation tightly bound up with self-preservation and security. Ultimately, he withdraws from the local economy, and by extension, the economy of the kingdom of God. Locked away in his home, with abundance shored up in his new big barns, the rich man will need no one and be needed by no one. He will live alone in isolation from communion with the world around him, in seeming bliss.
God calls him a fool, demands his very life. The question God asks, “the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” exposes not only the rich man’s foolishness, but the theft at the heart of his building project. To stockpile grain in barns is to steal from the tables of the hungry, and ultimately from the bonds of friendship.
Stewardship of the ground’s abundance required more than preservation; it begged hospitality, generosity, the vulnerability of participation in a community where neighbors could ask of him, make demands of him, and where he might risk offering everything, becoming interdependent in turn. Wise stewardship requires the risk and inconveniences of a shared life, and the abundance of grain ironically revealed the scarcity lurking in the rich man’s heart.
The parable raises a question about what it might mean for us, the church, to wisely steward our abundance, in whatever form it comes, and ultimately steward our lives. Where are we, both as congregations and individuals, tempted to be self-sufficient, self-secure, and withdrawn from the local economies of interdependence and vulnerability? What are the windfalls that come as gift not from our own hands, but provision beyond our planning and control, tempting us to build bigger barns?
We did make more drying space for all of those onions. My friend trimming next to me was right: we needed more space in order to steward that harvest well.
But the end of the story is that by November, those thousands of onions will be gone, packed into CSA boxes alongside cucumbers, melons, sweet potatoes, and whatever else the land makes before then. About half of those boxes are given to neighbors at no cost or on a sliding scale, or sometimes in exchange for work and the deep communion forged by laboring together with the ground. More tables were only a temporary measure.
Our table lives can teach us wise stewardship if we have eyes to see – both our ordinary daily tables and our communion tables. These days we’re less likely to store grain in bigger barns, and more likely to expand our bank accounts, but our tables still have something to teach us about receiving gifts, the serendipitous burdens of grace, vulnerability to the demands of neighbor and friend, and interdependence. These words from the Catholic Order of Mass express the ordinary mystery at the center of our shared life:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
The simple elements of everyday food and drink, offered as gift, become for us transcendent goods, holy and life-giving. And so we come to the table, our hands outstretched to receive an abundance that astounds us and which rests in our hands only by grace, begging to be stewarded in service to God and love of our neighbor. May the end of our harvesting be the beginning of a heavenly sowing. Amen.