How little control we have over the events of our lives and our time of death is pointed out in readings today. We begin with the most pessimistic look at life in all the scriptures and reflect on how that fits into our faith in God.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23
The selection is unusually short and to set it in context will be 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 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 related to the word used for ‘church’. ‘Preacher’ in our translation carries the idea of a leader for a religious gathering. Because of the uncertainty about its meaning, I like many scholars keep the name from the Hebrew text.
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 before Christian hope. The Revised New Jerusalem Bible says that ‘its inclusion in the Bible is reassurance for all who share this attitude’. Any moments of desolation and despair we experience are thus surrounded in a wider context of God’s embracing and everlasting love.
The opening phrase, ‘Vanity of Vanities’ is from the King James translation. The form itself is a Hebrew way of expressing the superlative. ‘Vanity’ here does not mean excessive self-admiration, but something like ‘futility’ or ‘uselessness’, or like the expression ‘in vain’. Alter says that the Hebrew word comes from the breath of exhalation, something brief and quickly fading if observed at all. He translates it ‘mere breath ‘. 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, here shown through amassing many possessions one can’t hold on to in the end.
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’ against hearing God’s word, 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 Qohelet. The first part summarises our position of life in Christ, emphasising that since Christ has ascended to heaven the fullness of our deepest reality is with him and not daily living. To have our thoughts on ‘the things of the earth’ does not mean to ignore 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 as contrasting a life of selfishness, and all kinds of self-indulgence. It lists some of the sins or vices which are the ‘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 moreover through baptism we also put aside differences between us and our fellow Christians. These should not 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 today with increasing divisions all around us – including between religious communities and also within our own Church. All such differences are insignificant in the reality of God’s love for all. The ‘allness’ of Christ, who is with us in everything that happens and all the worries and concerns such as expressed in Qohelet. We today have the anxieties of the present global situation of wars, famine and environmental destruction and these events too are where we are to trust in God.
When someone from the crowd asks Jesus to get his brother to share the inheritance, they are aware that rabbis did make such rulings. Jesus, however, refuses to take on this role, just as he refused to intervene 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, and even an expectation of guaranteeing financial security. The idea of not being able to rely 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 in everyday life of the time. The man in the story accumulates the common wealth in an agricultural society, where in our world we might think of stocks and bonds or expensive real estate and displaying an excess of luxuries. 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 Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary and The Fourfold Gospel Commentary.]