July 31, 2016
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth
Ps 90:3-6, 12-14, 17
If today you hear his voice…
Col 3:1-5, 9-11
Your life is hidden with Christ in God
The Rich “Fool”
The choice of today’s first reading is not at all arbitrary. Although the passage from Ecclesiastes is not directly quoted in the Gospel reading, the book itself is. Perhaps its most famous line leads off the passage today: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” Another line, almost as famous, is actually quoted in Luke’s parable: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Actually, this merges two biblical sayings. One is Ecclesiastes 8:15, ‘Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” This is the line that is echoed in the Gospel for today. The other part of the popular saying is from Isaiah 22:13, “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.” It is only the part from Ecclesiastes that is quoted in Luke’s parable.
We can add to this a passage from Paul’s writings. He makes a similar point, but from the other direction, in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “If the dead rise not, let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.” For Paul, the prospect of such merriment has more to do with despair, if resurrection should be discounted, than it has to do with enjoyment.
For obvious reasons, Ecclesiastes can sometimes be confused with Ecclesiasticus. For this reason, we currently find them cited under alternative names — Qoheleth for Ecclesiastes, Sirach for Ecclesiasticus.
Like the book of Job, Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, belongs to a skeptical tradition within the Wisdom literature. The more conventional wisdom writings, such as Proverbs, favors a language of contrasts—rich and poor, wise and foolish, just and wicked. For some examples, take a look at chapter 10 of Proverbs, one of the oldest parts of the book. In essence, Proverbs is a collection of collections, and this is the beginning of the oldest of them.
What happened in the conventional wisdom writings is that these contrasts tended to be aligned with one another. The rich and poor were equated with the wise and the foolish, and these in turn were identified with the just and the wicked. The more skeptical strands within the wisdom tradition questioned this facile equation.
In the case of Ecclesiastes, this questioning takes the form of adopting the persona of Solomon the Great, and then presenting him as bored with life. The book is generally considered to involve two parts. The first part, Ecclesiastes 1-6, is an investigation into life. All the good things available at hand which offer diversion or instruction (and Solomon was thought to have them all), eventually grow stale. Work (1:16-18); pleasure-seeking (2:4-11); pursuit of wisdom (2:12-23); great wealth (5:10-20)— all are found wanting. In the second part, chapters 7-12, we find some conclusions drawn by the author. Where the first part casts a pall; the second part finds some limited value in what life offers, despite it all. Meanwhile, the text is punctuated with a refrain insisting that all is “vanity.”
The Gospel reading begins with someone from the crowd asking for Jesus to decide an inheritance dispute between the man and his brother, perhaps not unlike Solomon himself. After warning against making possessions the standard of one’s life, Jesus further answers the parable that revisits the themes from Ecclesiastes. Wisdom perspectives are visible in the language of rich and poor, wise and foolish (“You fool!”).
Luke’s readers were probably socially prominent, wealthy, and literate, like “Theophilus,” in Luke 1:1-4. He might be reminding them that they must look beyond the good life that they enjoy (especially in contrast to the plight of most), and come to terms with it, and with God.
For reflection: Does the parable have meaning for us today?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.