Proper 13, C
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Colossians 3:1-11, Psalm 49,
The gospel lesson today touches on some very sensitive, very difficult topics: Greed. Sudden death. Worst of all, money. One simply does not discuss these awkward subjects in polite company, certainly not in church. So. (pause, allowed to get a little bit awkward)
Ecclesiastes. Let’s talk about Ecclesiastes. Nothing short of a miracle that this book ever made it into canon. I’ve seen it described as the bungee jump of Hebrew Scripture’s wisdom literature. (Shauna Hannan) It’s a dramatic leap away from the canonical company it keeps. It’s tone is frustrated, it’s themes are those of the uselessness of human activity, denial of faith and doubt in the basic goodness of God. It’s an odd little gem of a book, ostensibly narrated by the agnostic, honest, skeptical and might I say downright cranky Qoheleth, translated as “the Gatherer” or “the Teacher”. The book of Ecclesiastes is the story of the faith journey of this cantankerous old cynic. This is a man who has dedicated his life to the search for and study of wisdom. He feels he has found it, understands it, and yet, after all that, he still hasn’t found meaning. People labor and sweat and worry and save and in the end they die, and none of it matters. Vanity, all is vanity. The hebrew word translated as vanity is “hevel”, meaning “transitory”, “fleeting,” or “mere breath”.
Blunt in its approach, stark in its realism, refreshing in it’s honesty, Qoheleth’s world view is nonetheless discouraging, bereft of hope. It is the world of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” In the Red Queen’s race, Alice is running, running fast, but her position never changes. Alice takes issue with the Red Queen,
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Qoheleth’s world, the Red Queen’s world – any resemblance to our world? Do you ever feel, have you ever felt, that you work and save and work some more and you still feel that you haven’t worked enough, saved enough, done enough, bought enough? It’s not just money – it’s insurance, it’s social position, it’s achievements, it’s STUFF. It’s security. It’s my future. And I never quite know for sure, for absolute sure, that it will be ok.
The rich fool lives in that world. He has run for a long time. Now the earth has produced abundantly and he’s getting so close. He has so much STUFF. Now all he needs is someplace to keep it all. Bigger barns, that’s it. Then he has assured his own future. Then he can say to himself, “Self,” he will say. “Self, now…now you can eat, drink and be merry. Now that you have more than you can possibly ever use, you can relax.”
If you pull out a dollar bill and read it, you will see the inscription, “In God we trust.” It’s so very ironic, because so often, not always, I hope, but so very often, it is not God we trust. It is the money we trust. Money dominates our culture, our politics, our decisions. In a recent study of self reported happiness, the countries that reported the highest rates of happiness were Panama and Paraguay. El Salvador and Venezuela were next. The bustling, wealthy, economically booming Singapore was at the absolute bottom of the list. The very wealthy U.S. didn’t make the top 30. Nonetheless, we are bombarded daily with the idea that money, or what it can buy, or what it ensures, will bring us happiness.
Douglas Adams illustrated this pervasive belief in all its folly this way in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, “This planet … had a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
Jesus’s parable does not condemn the man for working, for saving, for having. Money is not evil in and of itself. Money is a tool. Jesus condemns the rich fool for what Peter Rhea Jones terms “practical atheism”. The rich fool appears in the middle of a story by a jewish rabbi to a jewish audience. We have every reason to assume he did all the pious things a Jew must do and said all the pious words a Jew must say in a position of wealth and its subsequent power and social prominence. But God is absent from his thoughts, absent from his consideration. In fact, all of God’s creation is absent from the rich man’s thoughts and consideration. “I will do this: I will pull down my barns…I will store all my grain and my goods.” And I will say to my self, ‘Self.” Even his conversation included only himself. Himself and his STUFF. Jesus reminds those listening to the story of Qoheleth’s truth. The accumulation, the security, the wealth, the toil; it is hevel, it is the wind.
Jesus is not about money at all and suggests that we shouldn’t be either. Jesus reveals the insatiable nature of greed, its inevitable corollary of isolating self-centeredness. Jesus reveals the truth that Qoheleth did not discover. He offers an alternative to the hevel, the vanity, the meaninglessness of endless search for STUFF. He offers a life rich with God. He offers a life of relationship, of loving, of interaction with God and all of God’s creation, of giving – giving not just of STUFF but of self. “St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.” (quoted from David Lose in Working Preacher)
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Jesus pushes us towards a faith that goes beyond merely showing up and saying the right words at church. (although that’s important, too) “…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.” Jesus exemplifies a way of living, of loving, of being, of interacting with all of God’s creation. Perhaps, if we can live this way, love this way, we will know the hope that escaped Qoheleth. Perhaps we will never feel the need to build bigger and bigger barns for more and more STUFF. (concept Rick Morley)
God, (not STUFF) is our refuge. God (not STUFF) is our strength. Praise be to God. AMEN.