August 4, 2019
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth
Ps 90:3-5, 12-14, 17
You turn man back to dust
Col 3:1-5, 9-11
You were raised with Christ
A question about inheritance
Our culture values wealth. But more than that, it identifies a person’s value in terms of wealth. This is convenient because it wealth has a number; it can be measured. In business and elsewhere, higher salaries mean greater status. In professional sports, superstars compete for astronomical salaries, not out of need but as a comparative recognition of value. So there are cultural reasons for rationalizing today’s readings.
In the Gospel, we have been following Luke’s account of Jesus long journey toward Jerusalem. He has interacted with different groups. He has taught his disciples and debated with his opponents, the Pharisees. But there is a third group traveling with them — the crowd of interested onlookers following the important wisdom teacher, as they view him.
Last week we saw Martha asking for Jesus to intervene between her and her sister, Mary. Today one of the crowd speaks up, asking Jesus to decide between him and his brother on a question of inheritance. Unlike last week, Jesus declines to intervene. Instead he tells a parable about a rich man who had many possessions. In those days, that meant property, extensive plantations. He had a rich harvest, and he could cash it in for a satisfying retirement. He could live out his life in comfort, assured of security.
However, that life doesn’t last much longer, as his “life was demanded of him” that very night. His wealth didn’t provide the security he thought it would. The implicit answer to the questioner is that there are better things to worry about.
The language of the parable is loaded. The original listeners would recognize the vocabulary and categories of wisdom writing. Talk of the just and the wicked, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish, permeates the book of Proverbs and other wisdom writings. To call a rich man, “You fool,” as God does in the parable, would scramble the categories of Wisdom literature. The just were thought wise, and the wise proved it by becoming rich. Harsh but clear categories.
But one book of wisdom writing in particular seems to be referenced here, the boo of Ecclesiastes. It is there that we read (in the classic phrasing), “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die” (2;24 ; 3:13; 5:17). Ecclesiastes is recommending we make most of the moment we have. The parable says something a little different.
It is no doubt for this reason that the lectionary has chosen the book of Ecclesiastes for the first reading for today. And here we find one of the most famous sayings from this book — “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”
“Qoheleth,” by the way, means “The Preacher.” It is from the Hebrew, which the Latin Vulgate rendered by the more familiar “Ecclesiastes.” Because Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus, a completely different book, were easily confused, one is now often called Qoheleth, and the other Sirach. Maybe it helps; maybe not.
The essence of the book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, is that cry of “Vanities of vanity.” This has also been translated as “Vapor of vapors.” The idea, of course, is that so many of the things we prize, and even base our lives upon, are transient, they will not provide what they promise by way of fulfillment and security.
The preacher, adopting the persona of King Solomon, one who proverbially had everything, looks at all the places where we hope to give life meaning, and not just riches. He examines in turn pleasures and leisure activity (2:1-12), wisdom and scholarship (2:12-17), meaningful work (3:9-15; 4:1-6), legacy (4:7-17), and of course, riches (5:7-16). But they all fade away in the end.
For reflection: The Bible’s counterintuitive claim is that the only security is trust in God.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.