There was an unusual item in the news this past week. A man named Jon Underwood died; he was 44 years old. Six years ago he started a local movement in London, UK, that he called “death cafes.” His “death cafes” were small, informal social gatherings. They were open to anyone who wished to attend. Those attending were free to express any opinions or concerns they had about death, dying or the afterlife.
The idea originated some years earlier in Switzerland with a sociologist who wanted to help people deal with the brevity and tenuousness of life. Jon Underwood’s family described him as a man on a spiritual quest to make sense out of mortality.
I understand the concern and curiosity that would lead to something like the “death cafes” mentioned in the news article. All people value their lives, and all of us know that life lasts only for a limited time. As none of us have personal experience of death (yet), it’s unavoidable to wonder what comes after this life.
There is also an element of futility about the “death cafes” mentioned in the news article. Whatever awaits us after death is not going to be a matter of opinion or speculation. Although there is a natural tendency to wonder about such things, there is no reason to believe that our concerns or opinions will have any effect at all on what actually will happen to us when we die. We don’t have a clear understanding of the eternal fate of our lives, but some things are self-evident; one of those things is that, whatever happens, it’s probably not a matter of personal opinion.
The well-known parable in this Sunday’s Gospel is intended to offer encouragement to us about the uncertainties we face. It’s often called the parable of the sower and the seed, but it could also be called the parable of the extravagant harvest. This parable has a message very similar to two shorter sayings by Jesus that occur a few lines after this story in the Gospel. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast use the image of diminutive beginnings (a small seed and yeast), that result in large unforeseen results (a large shrub and the leavening of a batch of bread). (Matthew 13:31-33)
Various commentators suggest a variety of average yields for grain harvests in the ancient world. The estimates I’ve seen range from three-fold to ten-fold. I would tend to favor the lower end of the scale. Given that the parable was probably addressed to poor people, the most likely assumption is that the sower mentioned in the parable was a poor sharecropper. The sharecropper would have been expected to grow enough grain to pay the landowner for use of the field and to supply seeds for the next growing season. Whatever was left over went to the sharecropper.
A three or four-fold harvest of grain would have met those requirements. It’s unlikely that most sharecroppers were able to harvest more than this. In the parable Jesus described a return of “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (Matthew 13:8) This would have been an astronomical amount of grain, a windfall profit. As in the two shorter parables, an extravagant outcome was the result of very modest beginnings.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel attaches an allegorical interpretation to the parable. The allegory was intended to offer encouragement to evangelists and disciples who were experiencing disappointing results from their attempts to spread the Gospel message. Despite this allegorizing, the parable remains a story about the afterlife, that is, eschatology and the last things.
Jesus was assuring his original hearers that God’s will would not be thwarted. Although the proclamation of the Gospel might appear to have only a limited effect on people, the effects of the Gospel at the end of time would be disproportionately large. Those extravagant results are promised to “the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (Matthew 13:23) In other words, the guarantee of knowing one’s eternal fate is the result of living according to God’s Word, and teaching others to do the same.
This is intended to be encouragement, but it’s not intended to be easy. The eternal fate of everyone who is born into the world will be based on their living according to God’s Word and their effort in spreading God’s Word in the world. This is exactly what Jesus says throughout the Gospels
Our eternal fate is not a matter of our personal opinion, nor is it going to be determined by our curiosity about eternity. The life we will have in eternity will be a continuation of the life of faith we live now. In other words, eternity is a present mission and a way of living now: to live the Word and spread the Word.
Those folks who participate in the “death cafes” are, in a very real sense, wasting their time in this life. Talking about one’s opinions or concerns about death accomplishes very little of lasting value. This applies to us as well. Talking about or thinking about the afterlife doesn’t get us any closer to God’s Kingdom. Assurance of our participation in the Resurrection of the just depends on our believing and proclaiming God’s saving Word.
If you want to know what’s going to happen to you after you die, you have only to hear God’s Word today and live each day in God’s presence. If you live in the presence of God each day of your life, your journey into the next life might happen without you noticing it. On the other hand, if you ignore God’s Word today, you have no way of knowing how to live in this life or the next.
The Word of God, in the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus, is comparable to the seed in the parable; when given an appropriate welcome, it produces an astounding harvest. “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matthew 13:9)