Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Saint Luke 12:13-21
Since our first reading is from Ecclesiastes, permit a few words about Wisdom Literature – which was a common type in the Ancient Near East, known especially in Egyptian, and in Semitic cultures. Greek philosophy, to which these teachings have often been compared, commented on human life in the context of the common mores of society. Hebrew wisdom literature explores similar themes but in the context of the Law, the moral determinations that are set forth by the God of Israel. In spite of this unique viewpoint in Hebrew Wisdom, it does serve as a conduit for ideas that enter Judaism from Egypt, and the Mesopotamian region. Books of the Bible that are examples of such literature include Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon, some of the Psalms (see today’s psalm especially), and some materials in Lamentations. The materials range from every-day aphorisms that we all recognize even today, to deep musings about the purpose and intent of life.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
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.
The author of Ecclesiastes is Qohelet, which means “assembly” or “congregation”, therefore someone who holds some kind of office in the assembly, perhaps “Teacher” would do. The current title “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek word for “assembly” (later “Church”) ekklesia. The author struggles to make sense of life, and discovers that there are no sure ways to secure the benefits of life, because all life ends in death. This is elegantly stated in the first verse: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity”. The word translated as “vanity” literally means “vapor” or “breath”, and so other words might be better used, since vanity has a distinct English connotation. Perhaps the Teacher’s sense might be better served using words such as “absurd” or “futile”. What is interesting about these passages is that they betray an individualism that is unusual in Hebrew life. Concern about the future and “individual survival” was always met with the promise of the future of children, and the family as a whole. This does not consol the Teacher, however, who finds his work joyless, something that he will take no pleasure in but will need to bequeath to his heirs.
Breaking open Ecclesiastes:
1. What do you think the purpose of life is?
2. Is your work meaningful? Does it benefit others?
3. What is of real value in your life? What makes you glad to see each new day?
Psalm 49:1-11 Audite haec, omnes
Hear this, all you peoples;
hearken, all you who dwell in the world, *
you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak of wisdom, *
and my heart shall meditate on understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb *
and set forth my riddle upon the harp.
Why should I be afraid in evil days, *
when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,
The wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods, *
and boast of their great riches?
We can never ransom ourselves, *
or deliver to God the price of our life;
For the ransom of our life is so great, *
that we should never have enough to pay it,
In order to live for ever and ever, *
and never see the grave.
For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.
Their graves shall be their homes for ever,
their dwelling places from generation to generation, *
though they call the lands after their own names.
Even though honored, they cannot live for ever; *
they are like the beasts that perish.
Whoever wrote this particular psalm had a great deal in common with the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this particular psalm serves as an excellent example of what we call “Wisdom.” The poet takes a cynical view of things, in seeing that death is a great equalizer between the rich and the poor and the wise and the foolish (see especially verse 10, where all the accomplishments of life are met with the inevitability of “the Pit”, or death.) The “Pit” was the Hebrew notion of the place where the dead go – neither a heaven nor a hell, just a place for the dead. Verse 11 uses a word for “fool” that is only found in Ecclesiastes, and so the comparison is well taken. Indeed the whole notion that “others” will receive the reward of labor is a notion totally consonant with the message of Ecclesiastes. The temptation is to assign to this psalm the theme of “greed”. It’s actual message, however, is much more fundamental and existential.
Breaking open Psalm 49
1. How do you feel about death? Do you live in dread of it, or only see it as a part of life?
2. What will you leave your children, or those who will inherit from you?
3. Do you consider yourself “greedy”?
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
This particular reading consists of the end of one section, which consists of a warning against false teaching (3:1-4). Here the author differentiates between those things that are “from above” and those things that are “earthly”. These are resurrection arguments, and the author does not want to talk about Christ in a physical or earthly fashion, for Christ is raised. Colossians wants us to understand that the resurrected Christ is in a new realm, and that we are invited to participate in this new type of existence. Christ is not “hidden” in the earth, but rather “revealed” in glory, as we shall be as well
The next section which outlines general principles for the Christ life, beginning with verses that lift up the example of Baptism (3:5-11), continues with the notion that we are to become something different, and the author uses Baptism as the means. Elsewhere Paul says, “For (in Baptism) you were buried with Christ.” If the baptisms that you have witnessed have involved sprinkling or pouring, the image may miss you. If, however, you have been to an Orthodox Baptism, where the candidate is submerged under the waters, the image is unmistakable. The author continues with two lists of vices, that are “earthly” and that are to be given up. We should be dead to such things, and being so, the whole social order is in upheaval. The distinctions that used to be made, no longer obtain, for all are “raised” with Christ. The earthly is left behind.
Breaking open Colossians:
- In what way is your life “earthly”?
- In what way is your life “heavenly”?
- What does your baptism mean to you?
Saint Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "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 toward God.
"They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
This particular parable is found only in Luke. The question that the person in the crowd asks is not unusual. Such a query, on inheritance, to a Rabbi would be common (see Numbers 27:1-11). Jesus, however will have none of it. Following on the themes introduced to us in Ecclesiastes and Psalm 49, where the common wisdom is “you can’t take it with you.” Jesus’ parable is about the Commonwealth of God – that which we can take with us. For Jesus, the legal argument is meaningless, because the things of real value have been forgotten. The final quotation is from Hosea 11:11.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- In what ways are you wealthy?
- In what ways are you poor?
- In what ways are you wise?
- In what ways are you a fool?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.