Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26
Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name.
We have three cats, which means dealing with the litter box is a constant challenge. It doesn’t help that the box is in a room that has (very old and ugly) carpeting. This means I can’t just sweep up the litter that escapes, I have to vacuum regularly. We keep the box on a large rubber pad, but I think the cats pretend they are playing golf with their balls in a sand trap at night because the little ends up everywhere. Unfortunately, when I do vacuum, it seems that within minutes the cats are spreading the litter again.
I grumble equally about tasks like the dishes and the laundry, which never seems to be done. I am sure you can think of a number of tasks that frustrate you and make you wonder why you bother to do them. The bed will be messed up, the grass will grow and the car will just get dirty again. We do these things because we know that it will be harder if we ignore. How much easier is it to do a couple loads of laundry rather than a day’s worth when we have nothing clean to wear? How much easier is it to do a handful of dishes than a whole sink full when we run out of clean glasses? The room would become terribly messy if I didn’t vacuum that kitty litter often. It seems pointless, but in the end it is better to do what we can at the moment rather than wait until it is unavoidable.
The text from Ecclesiastes doesn’t begin with much hope. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’” In the NIV, the first verse is translated “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals in life. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a nice place to live and a comfortable existence. We practice our hobbies so that we can be good at them. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We create friendships so that we will not be lonely, but will be happy and satisfied. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
We are reminded by this text that everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move to new places. Though we hope that they will retain some of the things we have given to them, they do not hold on to everything. Our traditions die because they create new traditions. Sometimes they see the world from a different point of view and they take a path we would not take. Our hobbies come and go as our interests change with the trends of the day. Our memories fade and knowledge changes as researchers find other possibilities. Even our friendships end as we move on to other places or people.
As we continue to listen to the teach, we see that he laments the fact that everything he has done in this life will be left behind to another when he passes into death. He does not know if his heirs will ever appreciate what they inherit or if they will even be good stewards of the gifts. He does not know if they will be wise men or fools. Like the teacher, when we die all that we have worked hard to accumulate will be beyond our grasp.
Some people try to take it with them. They have items that they want to have placed in their coffins. There is a joke about a man who made his wife promise to bury him with all his money. She made the promise, and at the funeral she walked to the coffin just as it was being closed and placed within it a cardboard box. A friend asked, “You didn’t really put all his money in that coffin?” She answered, “I made a promise and kept it. I collected all his money into my bank account and wrote him a check.” That’s one check that will never be cashed.
Think about the Egyptian practice of burying the pharaoh with a household of good things for his afterlife. Pets, servants, food and everything they would need were provided in their tomb for their journey as if it would be useful to their dead flesh. This practice was not limited to those with wealth, power and authority or only in Egypt. In many societies the common man was buried with important implements of their life. The farmer was given a plow, the doctor his tools. A grave of a Saxon warrior was unearthed in England while we lived there. He was buried with his horse and his sword. We benefit from these practices because we learn so much about the culture when we study what was buried with the dead, but they do nothing for the people after they have passed.
These practices are meaningless. What good are a dead horse and a sword for a dead man? The food in the pharaoh’s tomb spoiled, his earthly goods were stolen by grave robbers. The lives of the servants and pets were wasted. None of these things are eternal and even if those of those other faiths have a possibility of eternal life beyond the grave, the perishable will never become imperishable. We don’t need worldly goods when we die, so why do we chase after them while we are alive?
The teacher in Ecclesiastes asks what we are working so hard to accomplish. “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.” We worry and rush about doing many things that are nothing but vanity. Again we ask, what is vanity? It is self-centeredness. It is focusing on the wrong things. It is making sure that we have everything we want, everything we think we need. It is a rushing after many things, hoarding of our blessings. It is like the man who saved all his money to take it into the grave.
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage seems without any hope at all. Yet, as we are reminded of the truth that our pursuits are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, we are also reminded that there is a greater scheme. We look beyond ourselves, our points of view, our passions and we see that there is hope. Though our toil is in vain, our days are full of pain and everything we do in this life will either pass away or be given to another generation to waste or ruin, our hope rests in something much greater than ourselves. In knowing, and living, this truth, we will see that His purposes and pursuits are not so meaningless.
Unfortunately, families are often broken because the members fight for worldly possessions that they feel belong to them for one reason or another. These cases are often very complicated because the wishes of the deceased were never properly documented or the papers were not legally acceptable. There was once a story about a famous heir. She had taken the wealth into which she was born and wasted it, chasing after worldly pleasures and abusing the advantages she had been given. Her troubles have been widely reported, with days’ worth of commentary about her actions and the consequences of her actions. She was even imprisoned for her crimes, illegal behavior that was a danger to herself and others. This is the way of life for many young ladies who have been given the benefit of great wealth and they are ruining their lives by chasing after their hedonistic obsessions. Unfortunately, the wealthy, young socialite learned that her behavior had yet another consequence; her inheritance was taken away from her and given to a charity that is more worthy to receive the money.
In modern times, an estate is normally divided equally between all the children in a family. However, in ancient times, the estate of a man was typically divided between his sons, with the eldest son receiving a double portion. This meant that in a family with two sons, the first born would be given two thirds of the estate and the younger just a third.
In the story from today’s Gospel, two brothers approached Jesus about an inheritance situation. This was not an unusual thing for them to do; the rabbis were authorized to judge cases like this. A man went to Jesus because he saw Him as a rabbi and he wanted an official verdict to their dispute. Jesus answered the brother, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” Jesus was not interested in becoming involved with their dispute, but he did not leave the question open. He used the question as an opportunity to give the crowd a lesson in greed.
It might seem like no one should be happier than the man in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, he has so much grain that it won’t even fit in his barns. He decided to tear down the old barn and build a bigger one. And then he said, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” This is the mistake we make, thinking that our stuff is eternal. Our souls do not need bigger barns and higher piles of grain. Our souls do not need faster cars or bigger houses. Our souls do not even need water and bread. Our souls need God.
I think it is interesting that we see similar language in the verses from Ecclesiastes and Luke. Both talk about eating, drinking and being merry. The difference is that the teacher knows that his enjoyment comes from doing God’s work. The man thinks he deserves to eat and drink and be merry because of his own accomplishments. Which attitude leads to eternal life?
“But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Here’s the hard part for us: our hard work and toil is not always outwardly selfish. Who among us hasn’t worked hard to make life better for our kids? We scrimp so that they can go to college. We pay for lessons and books and materials so that they can become all they have been created to be. We provide them with a place to live, food to eat and clothes for their backs. This is not selfish. We even save so that when we die, we can leave them with something that will make their lives easier. We buy insurance so that they will not be left with debts they cannot pay. We invest so that they will receive an inheritance. This is neither selfish nor self-centered.
I think it is interesting, though, that the man in the story is storing grain. He has more than he can possibly ever use. What will happen to that grain? Will it benefit his children if it is left inside a barn? Will it feed anyone if it becomes moldy or infested with insects? The man’s desire to keep all his grain in a barn was vanity because hoarding it would make it worthless. How much better is it to take the excess, which is a gift of God, and share it with others? Perhaps the man knows what he will do with that grain, but what will happen when he dies? Will his heirs know what to do with it? Will they use it properly? Or will it go to waste?
St. Basil the Great wrote about today’s Gospel lesson: “You who have wealth, recognize who has given you the gifts you have received. Consider yourself, who you are, what has been committed to your charge, from whom you have received it, why you have been preferred to most other people. You’re the servant of the good God, a steward on behalf of your fellow servants. Do not imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Take decisions regarding your property as thought it belonged to another. Possessions give you pleasure for a short time, but then they will slip through your fingers and be gone, and you will be required to give an account of them.”
St. Basil talked about how the rich man in today’s text didn’t know what to do with all his stuff. He has so much from this harvest and previous harvests that he decided to build a bigger barn. And yet we are reminded that his life could be taken at any minute. What good is all that grain wasting away in a barn? And what will the next person do with it? How much better would it have been to give some of that grain to feed the hungry? The rich man was given excess not so that he could hoard it in bigger and better barns but so that he could provide for those who had less. If he recognized that his blessing came from God, belonged to someone else, he might have done something completely different with his excess.
Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.” The earthbound attitude is one of self-centeredness; when we chase after the things of this world we lose sight of the things that truly matter. We eat, drink and be merry, not in celebration of God’s grace, but in boastful merriment of our own accomplishments, building bigger barns to hold all our stuff.
Paul lists the ways our self-centeredness manifests in this world and it is not a pretty sight. He encourages us to put those attitudes away, to be the new creation we are in Christ Jesus and live for Him. He reminds us that we are not alone in this, that all those who believe, no matter who they are, become part of Christ and will share in His glory. Paul writes, “...and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” This is why we were created; this is our reason for life. Our time on earth might sometimes seem meaningless, but nothing done for God’s glory is ever in vain.
The fruit of our toil, when used solely for ourselves, is meaningless and vanity. Yet, money itself is not bad. When we are rich toward God, we give the fruit of our labor to honor Him. The same is true of our time and talents. The life lived well is the one that is lived for Him. “When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.” Instead of rushing through life filling our barns with grain that will eventually spoil, joy is found when we go forth in faith and do God’s work in the world. This is our purpose, the reason for our blessings.
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’” It doesn’t have to be. The life lived in praise and thanksgiving of God is the life that experiences true joy. The psalmist writes, “Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing.” We all know that our work is not toil when we are doing something we love with an attitude of joy. So let us all praise God every moment of every day, living and working for His glory. This is not vanity or a striving after wind; it is a gift from God’s own hand.
The greatest blessings are those in which we see the hand of God working for our sake. God is active in our world today, continually creating and recreating the world for His glory. God manifests His love for us in tangible ways we can see and experience with joy. Sometimes the frustrations of life hang over us, threatening our peace and hope. Sometimes we think everything is meaningless.
I get frustrated by the continuous work necessary to keep my house clean and comfortable, but doing these tasks also gives me joy because I know they will benefit my family. The key to joy is to remember that our gifts and resources are not ours to keep, but have been given to us by God to be used for His glory. We are blessed to be a blessing. It is meaningless to build bigger barns to hold more grain when there is a world full of people who need to share in the excess that God has given to us. Using our money, time and talent to glorify ourselves is meaningless. Using our money, time and talents to glorify God is not. We have reason to rejoice; we have something to look forward to. After a life of faithful obedience, we will share in His glory forever.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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