Vanity, vanity – all is vanity . . . That’s the way the Old Testament reading begins – the reading from Ecclesiastes . Not exactly an uplifting or inspirational message to start the day with!!
The writer of Ecclesiastes has a name: Qo-he-leth.
Qoheleth is actually the Hebrew name of the Book we call Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth can mean Teacher or it can mean Preacher (that’s the way Martin Luther translated it.)
The Book of Ecclesiastes was probably written probably about 300 years before Christ was born – and that makes it one of the most newest texts in the Old Testament. It was written during a time when the Hebrew people saw very little reason for hope in the world around them . . . Life was difficult for them . . . and with the political oppression of the time and place there was very little hope that things could improve . . . This circumstance at least partially explains the sense of hopelessness and despair . . .
We learn in the first part of the reading, that Qoheleth, the Teacher, has used all his mental powers to investigate life . . . and to look for the value and purpose of what is done in this world, what is done “under the sun.” He comes to the conclusion that all is vanity and a mere chasing after the wind.
For us today the word vanity means to be exceptionally proud of yourself – proud of your appearance, your beauty perhaps – or your possessions: your home, your car – or your job or social status – whatever . . .
But in earlier years vanity meant futility or being without meaning. So what the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying – more closely in meaning – is that everything in this life is meaningless, everything is futile — everything about life is empty – nothing we do in life has any value . . .
So what do you think? Is this right? Would you agree that you’re living your life in vain?
Qoheleth goes on to complain that he hates all the work he’s done in his life. – He ends up asking “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain, the anxiety of it all?” Even at night their minds get no rest. And he bemoans the fact that in the end he has to leave the fruits of his labors behind to someone else who didn’t have to work for them . . . for their unmerited enjoyment . . .
We have the saying “You can’t take it with you when you go” . . . but you know: many people seem to die trying. And from this perspective Qoheleth is probably right to conclude that everything under the sun is vanity – it’s all useless, meaningless . . .
But this doesn’t exactly make for inspiring scripture reading. We might even wonder how and why this book made it into the Bible in the first place . . . and why your preacher today has decided to build the sermon around it??????
I think we can begin to appreciate the value of the book of Ecclesiastes when we realize that the purpose of Ecclesiastes is not to answer these questions but to ask them – – – to ask honest questions that most of us have had from time to time about the purpose of our lives – and questions about the fairness of life – – – Ecclesiastes brings our doubts out into the open.
Have you noticed that that not every act of goodness is rewarded in this life . . . that evil sometimes goes unpunished . . . that bad things happen to good people?? . . .
And in all this isn’t there the temptation to give up on God, to go off and live selfishly . . . only for ourselves ..
Isn’t it sometimes tempting to give up on the future which we can’t seem to control . . . or even influence for the best? Turning to the parable in the gospel today, wasn’t that exactly what rich fool in that story was trying to do?
To summarize the parable :
A man who was very rich to begin with – had an extremely profitable year – a huge harvest. And after giving it some thought, he decided that the thing to do would be to tear down his storage barns and build bigger ones so he could stuff more into them. . . lay in for the future .. His plan was to relax — eat, drink and be merry. But God called him a fool and said “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
In this parable Jesus seems to be sending the same message that we heard from Qoheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes: Life and work in this life are futile . . . meaningless.
However the clue to hope — the Good News in today’s Gospel reading – lies hidden in the last sentence of the reading – when Jesus says: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” . . . not rich toward God. Being rich toward God seems to be where our true treasure and purpose lie. But what does it mean to be rich toward God?
The answer to that question has been unfolding in the gospel readings for many weeks now: Do you remember Jesus’ answer to the question about obtaining eternal life? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself . . . And the parable about the Good Samaritan, putting love and relationship into action . . . The story about Mary and Martha — when Mary chose “the better” role listening to Jesus, building a deeper relationship with him. . . and last week: the teaching about prayer, coming into a deeper relationship with God through prayer . . .
Being rich toward God? It’s all about love and relationships . . . first with God and then with each other … and including a loving relationship with your self. Love is the Good News of our life in and through Jesus. Love is truly stronger than death – and it will never be taken away from us . . .
The bottom line is that the Love of God through Jesus Christ is the answer to the questions posed in the Book of Ecclesiastes—the question about the meaning of our existence.
Love is what we were made for . . .