In our era of the increasing wealth of the small percent ‘at the top’ combined with increasing problems of poverty elsewhere the readings today offer a perspective on hoarding riches, and pressures to spend and buy more, more, more.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23
The selection is very short and to set it in context will be far longer than the reading. Robert Alter in his book on the Jewish Wisdom texts says that this is ‘in some ways the most peculiar book of the Hebrew Bible. The peculiarity starts with its name.’ We hear two possible titles today: Ecclesiastes coming from the Greek translation, and ‘Preacher’. The Hebrew text has Qohelet (Qoheleth) whose meaning is uncertain. It may be derived from the word qahal, meaning ‘assembly’ of people for religious services, which is the idea of the Greek title as one who is a religious leader (‘Preacher’ in our translation.)
The book is striking its unrelenting pessimism, and how little it mentions God, or God’s mercy. Addison G. Wright, SS, says it ‘represents the sceptical side of Israelite wisdom’ and ‘does challenge some cherished beliefs.’ Qohelet’s quarrel is with ‘any theology that ignores experience.’ We might also see the view as a world without Christian hope.
The opening phrase, ‘Vanity of Vanities’ has become well known. The form itself is a Hebrew way of speaking of the superlative. ‘Vanity’ does not mean excessive self-admiration, but something like ‘futility’ or ‘uselessness’, like the expression ‘in vain’. Alter points out that the Hebrew word comes from the breath of exhalation, something brief and quickly fading if observed at all. The mass verses, chosen to match the Gospel, give a good example of how Qohelet notes the futility of human efforts to secure earthly happiness.
A choice of two Psalms is offered:
Psalm 89/90:3-6, 12-14, 17
This picks up the theme of Ecclesiastes on the shortness of life, but adds a prayer to be filled with love and rejoicing, a more typical biblical view.
Psalm 94/95:1-2, 6-9
This psalm is a call to worship, but adds a word as if heard from God, urging the worshippers to listen to him and not to ‘harden their hearts’ as some did on the past history. We can see it as calling us to listen to Jesus’ words.
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
This is the last of our series of readings from this Letter and is a contrast to Qoholet. The first part summarizes our position of life in Christ, emphasizing that since Christ has ascended to heaven the fullness of our reality is there with him. To have our thoughts on ‘the things of the earth’ does not mean to be unaware of both the joys and the challenges of life here and now, nor the beauties of the natural world. As the Letter continues, we see the meaning is more in living a life centred on selfishness. The list of sins or vices are ‘things of the earth’ we should have no part of. They were to be left behind after baptism which prepares us for the ‘new self’ we become in Christ.
The writer goes on to stress that through baptism we also put aside differences between us and our fellow Christians. These are not to divide us when we are in the ‘one Christ.’ This was a radical departure from the rigid social divisions of that time, but also a challenge applicable today with divisions all around us – and indeed among religious communities and even within our own Church. All such differences are insignificant in the reality of God’s love for all.
When someone from the crowd asks Jesus to get his brother to share the inheritance, he is aware that rabbis did make such rulings. Jesus, however, refuses to take on this role, just as he refused to do when Martha wanted him to make her sister help out. There he spoke gently to Martha, while here the use of ‘Man’ is ‘stern’ (Carroll Stuhlmueller C.P.). Jesus sees that the man is motivated by a concern for the money or property involved, and issues a general warning to the listeners against greed or avarice, or even an expectation of guaranteeing financial security. The idea of not relying on property echoes the reflection of Qohelet.
Jesus makes this vivid with a parable found only in Luke. As usual with his parables Jesus starts with common experience in an agricultural society, where in our world we might think of stocks and bonds and expensive property and goods as accumulated wealth. Robert J. Karris OFM notes how the rich fool speaks only of ‘I’ and ‘my’. ‘His egotistical concerns eliminate God and neighbour from his sight.’ Similarly, Andrew F. Gregory: ‘Perhaps too there is a hint that riches isolate and distance oneself from others.’ His sole plan is to use all his wealth for his own pleasure. The conclusion is dramatic: God speaks directly to him, using a word that indicates he is lacking sense, reason, or intelligence. Reflection on experience should have given him the knowledge that wealth is precarious, and life even more so.
Along with the challenge to us not to follow the foolish farmer, we are left at the end of this reading to reflect on what making oneself ‘rich in the sight of God’ means. The Gospel for next week will spell out more of what we are to do.[The authors quoted are found in Alter, The Wisdom Books, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and The Fourfold Gospel Commentary.]