Are you searching for meaning from all your individual pursuits and toils?
In the first reading of today’s 18th Sunday in ordinary time, from the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the main character or spokesperson in the book, says that all individual pursuits are vanity.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
We usually equate vanity with excessive pride in oneself or in one’s appearance, a picture of conceit and perhaps even arrogance. But in Ecclesiastes “vanity” translates the Hebrew hebel, which means “vapor, breath,” which implies “empty or valueless,” fleeting, like a vapor. Qoheleth finds no meaning in all our individual pursuits, but declares it meaningless! Everything is futile, Qoheleth reiterates,
What profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.
What a gloomy and dark picture Qoheleth paints about life! On the other hand, Qoheleth provides us with a brutally honest questioning of all our aspirations, struggles and dreams. Indeed everything in this physical world is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent and without any enduring substance. We often try to cling to things, and attempt to resist changes, but alas that is wasted effort, like trying to chase the wind. Qoheleth sees through the illusions of all our ambition and offers the most despairing of answers—there is no answer.
So does this mean that we should not strive anymore for anything? Does this mean that we should just do nothing or just eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die?
The second reading provides a meaningful way out of Qoheleth’s dilemma. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, tells the Colossians that they can only find meaning in their lives by seeking what is above and sharing in the risen life of Jesus. What matter most is not the earthly individual pursuits but putting on the new self of the victorious life in Christ:
Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above ,..
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry.
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed, for knowledge,
in the image of its creator.
The Gospel further deepens the thoughts of the first two readings. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a very rich man who produced a huge harvest one year. He was busy tearing down his storage barns to build still larger ones so he could hoard more into them.
He stores for future lean years, but not simply for his own pleasure. When the village smallholders have to come to him and borrow grain, he will charge an exorbitant price in hopes of confiscating even more land for himself.
“You have ample goods laid up for many years,” said the fool.
“Relax, eat, drink, and be merry”
The rich fool is a man who lived his life without reference to God and was caught in the toils of futility and meaninglessness (“vanity of vanities!”). He organized his life without reference to the transcendent; he did not “seek the things that are above.”
But Jesus was more than just spiritual, he was also practical. What should the fool have done? He might have done what Jesus praised the shrewd steward for doing (Luke 16:1-9): using surplus wealth as a means to gain friends so that when the wealth is gone, the friends will remain and repay the kindnesses, as this culture expects.
The readings for this 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time are warnings about the illusions of individualist and selfish pursuits that beset many of us. The anxiety and toil of Ecclesiastes, the idolatry and obsessions mentioned in Colossians, the voracious greed portrayed in the gospel parable all clamor for our attention.
The readings for today gives us a profound perspective for determining the worth of our lives. The readings teach us that life is not just about wealth, the bald facts of human mortality and the transiency of material possessions. Any reliance on wealth and possessions is pure folly—both worldly possessions and this life are fleeting.
Many would determine a person’s worth by the greatness of their house or their status and position in life or their portfolio or the make of their car. Whatever good is in them is transient; they die when you do. As the saying goes, you can’t take any of them with you when you die.
What then are the things that last in this life? Love lasts. Work done for the love of others especially the poor, needy and oppressed lasts. Most of all, the inheritance that only God can give: the fullness of eternal life. What truly last is spending our life dispossessing ourselves of anything which hinders us from growing into the fullness of life.