“Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
“I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14, 2:18–23
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
Sermon on Tenth Sunday of Trinity
The scholars are very fond of the wisdom literature. Our OT lesson is just one example of those writings. The reading itself tells us about itself. “I, the Teacher, when [I was] king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”
The Teacher/Preacher (depending on the translation you are reading) makes some outrageous statements about life on the basis of the wisdom which he has garnered through the application of his mind. I wonder whether we christians share his opinion of life? – For instance, do we see the course of our lives as a “chasing after wind”? Do we see that life is “an unhappy business”? Has God given us life only for us to be busy with vain things? No wonder he opines that all is vanity if everything is a chasing after wind. How dreadful is this judgement on life!
He goes on “I gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.” Despair is the conclusion of his toil with wisdom, knowledge and skill. Surely, not!
This Teacher asks elsewhere, “Why do the people imagine a vain thing?” This vanity is not the vain effete looking in the mirror. Rather it is the dreaming of dreams which are of no use to anyone, especially for the person imagining. The vain things are ephemeral, of no substance, they have no real being. Life in all its fullness which we all seek is missing, and thus vain.
So what are these vain things? Many who have accumulated wealth embody this pursuit of the vain things. They give up their hearts to the gathering of their fortune. Then, in the despair of old age and an empty future, they resent their beneficiaries, often to the point of cutting them out of their wills. Why? Because they did not work for the wealth. The rich often resent everyone who are not rich because they don’t see them as “worthy”. And the sons and daughters, the beneficiaries, are just as culpable, for they see that wealth as their own no matter whether they are industrious or not, whether they are sinners or righteous.
What about people whose riches are not just gold and silver? Those who are in positions of authority? Quite often people in such positions are very jealous of anyone who wants to do what they consider “their job”. We all know this – for instance, the secretary of the committee who has garnered all the bits and pieces for the running of the club, but will not share the knowledge. They make up their kingdom that no one can enter without explicit permission. It happens in all sorts of areas of life, doesn’t it? Why sometimes the cook in the household does the same! “Out of my kitchen,” you hear the chef say – or if you are listening to many of the television star chefs, even longer sentences of very short words to the same effect.
The Preacher goes on to say, “This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” This is the question at the crux of our thoughts today. With regards to wealth, the rich cannot take it with them, but they don’t want to give it away to anyone. Philanthropists are the exception to this rule, but how many people do we know who are happy to give away their wealth? – No wonder the Preacher despairs as we imagine the vain things in this fallen world. The Teacher cannot think of any way to make life tolerable, because everyone around him chases what appears to be vanity, those vain things which the philosopher warns everyone about. No wonder there is great skepticism when we speak about the purpose of life. – No wonder the Preacher is despondent, especially when religion itself can be seen to be an assemblage of vain things.
And I, this week at least, despair with the Teacher as the news catalogues all the hate expressing itself in crimes all around us. This culminated in the martyrdom of an elderly priest saying mass in France.
“All is vanity!” the Preacher screams at us. This is the sum of all wisdom for the Teacher as he looks at his world, and that is our conclusion as we look at the world around us, with its hate, its greed, its gross indecency. Why, I imagine we agree with the Preacher in his assessment of all things!
But is this the christian attitude in life? No, I do not think so. The christian knows about gifts given to the undeserving – each of us knows we are unworthy sinners who, in spite of that taint, have received the grace of God in some form of the fruits of the spirit – as Paul wrote about in our reading a few weeks ago.
I think the christian must learn from the wisdom literature, because the Preacher “toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill.” Such a gift must be accepted with thankfulness. However, it is our duty to be worthy of such a gift. We ourselves must live lives of “wisdom and knowledge and skill” because we have been given those gifts and they do enhance our lives. We must not disappoint the Teacher or ourselves because we could be “wise or foolish … [we could be] masters of all for which [the Preacher] toiled and used [his] wisdom under the sun.” With worthy followers, the Teacher should not despair. The Preacher must share his hard-won wisdom with the next generation as a philanthropist, not isolate himself away as a misanthropic miser.
Would Paul have written to the young churches, if he were not open to the other person, if he were not generous, if he were not a philanthropist in the widest sense, if he were not a ripe fruit of the Spirit?
We have an example of hope because today the church remembers the Saint, Ignatius Loyola. I would have loved to expound on the Spiritual Exercises but I have spent too much time in the slough of despond.
So to conclude my thoughts, I want to say this. Loyola wrote his book for the sake of others, that they might experience the height and depth of God’s love just as he did. His was grace dispensed freely – sadly we have to work at understanding that gift just as the Preacher had to toil with wisdom, knowledge and skill. And Loyola had to work hard – he had to exercise to gain what he has given away.
Let us be joyful in our humility as we give away everything we have gathered in the course of our lives – whether it be riches or knowledge, or just our christian love – let us disperse it generously as did all the saints of the church, as Christ does from the right hand of God.