What do you do when you don’t see the progress you’d like in building a culture? How do you encourage the pastor and his leadership team if things go slowly? Jesus met this challenge in a parable in Luke 13:6-9.
We can be like the frustrated vineyard owner in this parable—we want a quick fix and if it doesn’t come, we yell, “Cut it down!” But the gardener suggests a different route: “Let it alone this year, until I dig around it and put on manure.” Commenting on this parable, Eugene Peterson writes: “Manure is not a quick fix. It has no immediate result. It is going to take a long time to see if it makes a difference. . . . Manure is a slow solution.” Sometimes our ministry is like being a manure spreader.
Manure spreading is all part of the sowing and planting process. Each of us wants to enjoy the fruit of reaping. In twenty-first century America, who doesn’t want success? But what if we’re called to be the people who prepare the soil, the manure spreaders? One of the most difficult passages in the Bible for me is John 4:36-38:
“Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. . . .”
The difficulty is not in the passage’s meaning—it’s pretty straightforward. The hard part is the application, choosing to rejoice when someone else reaps from my hard work. However, when I put on my “eternity glasses” and see through Jesus’ eyes, I realize that my efforts are an integral part of the process. There is no reaping without sowing. I’m reminded of Dallas Willard’s comment that “grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.”
Reaping is all about grace. We enjoy the harvest that comes from the efforts of others. It reminds me of Israel’s experience in the promised land: the Lord planned “to give you . . . great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill. . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). In other words, this bountiful promised land was a gift of grace. Others had sown and Israel had the privilege of reaping.
Sometimes we walk into churches or ministries and our mission is to be manure spreaders. We’re planting and sowing but see little growth. I have to tell myself, “This is okay. It’s all part of God’s work.” In other cases, we walk into a church or ministry and transformation takes off! We need to stop and thank whoever sowed before we arrived. Without that effort, I (and the leaders around me) would not be able to enjoy this fruit.
What can we conclude? We’re either serving as manure spreaders or we’re following one. Here’s the bottom line for me: God values my work as a manure spreader and asks me to rejoice when fruit happens with someone who comes after me. After all, it’s all about grace.