The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13), Year C
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 labors 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
Have you ever woken up in the morning, with birds gently singing, the sun gently brushing your cheek and think to yourself, “What a beautiful day to endure the meaningless toil of a short and fruitless existence!” No? Then perhaps you have watched the firework display made by the fireflies in the trees on a hot summer night and thought to yourself “Such wonder, it will be such a shame when they all disappear due to the inevitable heat death of the universe”. Still no? Not many existentialists here I see. Let’s try this: One day you are going about your routine when a thought creeps into your mind, “Is this who I am? Is this what I’m going to be doing forever? When I’m gone, will anything that I have done mattered? Will anyone remember me?”
Nothing quite like having a perfectly lovely morning hijacked by an existential crisis. The conundrum of existence leaves no one untouched. The creeping questions of meaning, mortality, and morality pay no heed of age, gender, race, socioeconomics, reputation, or intelligence. We all must confront at some point or another what we are doing, why, and the meaning of it all. Why today? It’s such a nice day, why ruin it with such morbidity? It is precisely today, a day that is perfectly ordinary, perfectly pleasant, to ponder the meaning of it all. Only in the throws of normalcy can we see if this is really want we want, if this is really is as it should be.
The Bible gives us several guides on this journey, but none quite as direct and as unique as Qohelet, main voice of Ecclesiastes. This small book, an interlude between Proverbs and the Greater Prophets, takes a critical eye to everything we thought the Bible teaches us about the universe. In fact it was so offensive to many in its questioning of God’s created universe that it was nearly thrown out of the Canon. Even in our “enlightened” modern era it rarely shows up in the Lectionary because of its uncomfortable subject matter. Why ruin a perfectly good Sunday morning with the cry “Vanity! Vanity! All is Vanity!”?
In this morning’s readings, Qohelet introduces himself and his problem. Our translation chooses “Teacher” for Qohelet, others have chosen “Preacher” as his name, but both are misnomers. His name literally means “The one who gathers” which interestingly is where we also get the name of the book: Ecclesiastes from the Greek Ekklesia, meaning “gathering” (which later became the term used for Bishops and ultimately, Episcopal). But the name Qohelet, or “Gatherer” is deliberately chosen. He is someone who gathers wisdom which is why he takes on the character of King Solomon, the wisest king of Israel. This gathering of wisdom, which we would usually think of as a noble task, becomes problematic for Qohelet. In this story we are starting at the end. He has achieved his goal of gathering sacred wisdom, and it yields to him a terrible question: What’s the point? He’s just going to die and who knows if those who come after him will be as wise, or if they will even be good. In the face of Eternity, our short human lives seem to stack up to very little. He sums up the problem in one simple word: “Hevel”, a word used 36 times in the book. The NRSV translates it to “vanity”, sometimes it is translated as “meaninglessness” or “nothingness”. Again these are slight misnomers; hevel is most literally translated as “a wisp of smoke”. He summarizes the shortness and randomness of human endeavor as a bit of smoke, and chasing after the wind.
Hevel is all he can find after trying everything. When he first comes to this existential crisis he does what seems to be the most natural. Pleasure and self-indulgence! If we are all going to die, why not enjoy the ride? So he does everything for pleasure, though not in an outrageous way. He is wise after all, and he follows the biblically prescribed mode of pleasure, eat, drink, and be merry, but not to excess, the detriment of others, and never forgetting to worship God. “Hevel” he says. It’s still nothing. The encroaching specter of mortality leaves him empty even in pleasure.
He then gives himself into despair. Saying “I hated my toil under the sun”. This is where most people find Ecclesiastes offensive. Where is God in all of his struggle? He claims to be wise and follow God’s teachings, but if he does how can he fall into despair? That’s precisely his problem. The wisdom of the Bible teaches over and over again, do good, follow God, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished. If you turn to Proverbs and the other wisdom books before Ecclesiastes, you hear it a thousand different ways. Yet Qohelet knows, just as we know, life is full of randomness that punishes the righteous and aids the wicked. Even moreso, whether the righteous is rewarded, the wicked punished, you are wise, or you are foolish, all will die, and all will be forgotten on earth. It’s funny, the way that Qohelet writes you would think he was blogging, or perhaps writing edgy Facebook posts today rather than musing nearly three thousand years ago. As he observed, “There is nothing new under the sun”. However, after he had given himself over to despair for some time he came to the same conclusion. “Hevel”. Even his despair is vanity and chasing after the wind.
So how does he solve this problem? How do we solve this problem? What about heaven? Doesn’t the promise of eternal happiness, free ice cream, and the glorious presence of God solve all of this? No. Eternity does not solve the problem, it merely extends it. If our only hope is the promise of happiness we are no better off than simply seeking pleasure here on earth. That is hevel. Where then is our answer? What can we do? The answer is what any child in Sunday school will tell you: Jesus has the answer.
Our parable today comes from two brothers squabbling over their inheritance, which is exactly what drove Qohelet to despair, “…seeing that I must leave [my toil] to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” Jesus answers their bickering with a story about a rich man who has everything he needs, and stores up as much of a horde as possible to ease him into a sense of security. Then out of nowhere God confronts him with a terrifying question: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” God’s question is our answer. This day, this hour, this very moment, your life is being demanded of you! With the time you had, did you make it matter?
The mistake Qohelet, and many of us, make is assuming meaning comes from outside ourselves. That the only things that are meaningful are things that last forever and are not forgotten. The only things that matter are the things done by heroes, or great deeds that will leave their mark on humanity forever. Hevel. For all our wonders, our heroes, our great deeds, if humanity were to disappear today, the only mark the earth would remember us with is a warming climate. God’s great gift to humanity was to make us in His image. His image is a creative spirit. We are made to be stewards of God’s creation, and to creators ourselves like our Father. God’s greater gift, when we broke creation and were unable to have a right relationship with Him, was to send his Son to free us. Jesus returns our hearts back to God and restores in us our creative spirit. Through our relationship with God, our neighbor, our friends, our family, and ourselves, we can make our lives meaningful. It is our responsibility, your life is being demanded of you, what have you done with it?
How do you make your life meaningful? Truth be told only you and God know how to make your life meaningful. Let us for a moment step down from high philosophical angst and recognize the wisdom in folly. My grandmother’s favorite game was backgammon. Whenever she and I played it together she would always say that backgammon was like life. Unlike chess or other games where the better player always wins, in backgammon there is enough chance where you can play it perfectly and still lose, and play terribly but still win. The only real strategy is to take what you have and do your best to set yourself up for success. Like every endeavor in life if you lose one round, do not give yourself up to despair; keep playing. The joy of the game comes not from the winning or the losing but from how it was played, and the company of who you are playing with.