Ecclesiastes tells us that all earthly things are fleeting and meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Simultaneously Ecclesiastes says that all of life is a gift from God. Remembering this, we are called to seek and stand in awe of the eternal and Triune God above all earthly things.
Vicar Neal Cannon, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 18, year C; texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Sisters and Brothers, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s beautiful poetry that is both haunting and prophetic to our culture and context today. Now, I’ve done a fair amount of study and research on the book of Ecclesiastes, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the book of Ecclesiastes, is super depressing, because it’s is a book about the meaninglessness of life. No seriously, that’s what it’s about. Our text today speaks of the vanities of greed, money, and storing up vast amounts of wealth, and if the writer stopped there, there would probably be nothing especially unique about this text.
But Ecclesiastes continues by saying that hard work and toil are meaningless; wisdom is meaningless; knowledge is meaningless; pleasure is meaningless; advancement is meaningless; and according to the writer, even justice is meaningless, because it is human justice and not God’s justice. All this is to say, if you ever sit down to read Ecclesiastes on your own, I suggest that ahead of time you schedule counseling sessions with Pastor Joseph.
Ecclesiastes tells us that life is a chasing after the wind. I love this image of chasing after the wind, it reminds me of Sisyphus in Greek mythology. As the story goes, Sisyphus was a king who was constantly deceiving the gods and humanity alike in order to achieve power, seduce women, and live forever. And as Greek mythology tells us, Sisyphus was punished by the gods for his deceit, cursed into rolling a boulder up a hill to the crest of a hill for all time, only to watch it fall just before he reached the top for all eternity.
I think that the writer of Ecclesiastes must have been a little bit like Sisyphus. We’re told that the writer was also a king and a person of vast wealth, wisdom, and power. This is a person who had attained everything a human being could desire on Earth. But when the writer of Ecclesiastes looked back on his life, he determined that all his Earthly accomplishments were meaningless, like pushing a boulder to the crest of a hill, even though it is destined to fall to the bottom.
Sisyphus syndrome, as I like to call it, is a common problem in our culture. Many of us, young and old alike, try to imitate the cultural image of celebrities, models, or athletes that we can never truly duplicate. Still others of us chase after social status of various kinds only to be caught in a rat race of perception and self-doubt. Sometimes we really pride ourselves on being intelligent and well read, but our intellect can be taken away by a brain injury or Alzheimer’s. Occasionally we chase pleasure and experience in life, only to have it snatched away by the sad realities of a broken world. Then again sometimes we work, and toil, and build an empire of our own wealth and achievement only to reach the end of life and realize we can’t take it with us.
Its all “vanity of vanities!” Ecclesiastes says.
But even though the book of Ecclesiastes can be a little bit of a downer to read, I think we will find a lot of truth in what it is saying, which is essentially that everything that we do or possess on Earth has an end because all things on Earth come to an end. When we look back at the end of our lives, we can’t take our accomplishments, our reputations, or really anything with us.
So if life is as short and meaningless as this particular writer seems to think, then shouldn’t we just enjoy life while we can? Shouldn’t we live life to the fullest?
In an interesting twist, the writer of Ecclesiastes actually doesn’t disagree with this. The writer says that we can do nothing better than to enjoy our work, eat, drink, and be merry. The writer even goes so far as to say that it is a gift from God to be able to do so, but ultimately concludes that this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
It’s a depressing thought, and looking at our lives in this way would cause us to echo the exasperation in the writer’s voice, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
If this is true, it makes us ask ourselves, “does anything have any meaning in the world, or is my life just a chasing after the wind, too?”
The parable that Jesus tells today is strikingly similar in mood to Ecclesiastes. In this story a man approaches Jesus and asks him to help divide his father’s inheritance and Jesus essentially says, “Why are you bothering me with this? What am I, your judge?” Interesting to note is that rabbis such as Jesus were often asked to act as judge or arbitrator over a dispute. So it’s not out of line for this man to ask Jesus this question. Yet, Jesus seems put off by the notion that he would judge such trivial matters. “Life is more than possessions,” Jesus says.
Explaining himself further, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a rich man who stores up his grain so that he can retire early, relax, and enjoy life, maybe spend some time fishing at the cabin up north. And I think many of us would say that there is nothing wrong with this. In fact this is the American dream; to be able to work hard, get ahead in life, and be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We might even say that the rich man is doing the right and prudent thing by saving his money. Any financial officer today would certainly agree that the rich man is being wise.
What’s more, there’s nothing explicitly evil that the rich man does. We are not told that he harms anyone else, we’re not told that he acts unjustly. He’s just putting money is his 401K.
Yet God clearly scolds the rich man. And we’re left asking, what is the issue here?
As Christians, we’ve come up with all sorts of bad things the rich man could have done wrong. One theory is that the rich man is selfish because he never talks about anyone but himself. He never speaks of his workers, neighbors, friends or family. Other theories point to the potential impact the rich man had on the economy and still others point out that nowhere in his plans is God included.
All of these are valid theories. But what Jesus makes clear is that his concern is that the rich man is chasing after something that doesn’t last.
As humans, we often cling to things that don’t last. For example I saw an article on a news site the other day that said, “Raquel Welch, still beautiful at age 70!” And the picture of Raquel showed her in a tight fitting dress, and her skin was pulled back taut, and to be honest her face looked plastic with all the expression of a porcelain doll.
It was obvious from the picture and the caption that maintaining beauty meant looking young at any cost. And it makes me wonder, is this beauty to us, always looking young and thin with a painted on smile? The more I thought about it, the more this became a sad thought because it was clear that there is an American perception that youth is beauty. Not just Raquel, but our culture, fights getting old, or at least looking old, and it feels like we are chasing after our youth and it is something we will never catch, like we’re chasing the wind.
What Jesus and Ecclesiastes powerfully remind us today is that there are things that we chase after in this world that eventually fade away. Beauty, wealth, health, image, power, social status, youth, pleasure, etc., all are fleeting things, and to spend our lives chasing after them is chasing after the wind. Like Ecclesiastes says, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves, but the point is that they don’t last.
Fortunately, neither the writer of Ecclesiastes nor Jesus gives us a ten point plan or the purpose driven life to grant us meaning to our lives. Instead, Ecclesiastes responds to mortality and the ‘meaninglessness’ of life by saying one simple thing. “Stand in awe of God.”
Stand in awe of God. It’s one of the few things that Ecclesiastes doesn’t call meaningless. At first, it might not seem very helpful, it doesn’t seem to give us meaning to our lives, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Ecclesiastes’ response to mortality, to things that end, is to stand in the presence of the infinite, to abide with God, to worship and be in God’s presence. Jesus puts it a different way but essentially says the same thing. Jesus says, be “rich towards God”.
And in this, both Jesus and Ecclesiastes clue us into what really matters. And they tell us that God matters because God is eternal. Faith, hope, and love: These are things that no thief can steal and that no moth can destroy because they come from the eternal God.
That is why Paul also exhorts us to keep our eyes on Christ. “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Paul says that when we seek the eternal and Triune God of the universe, we find true meaning. In seeking Christ, we learn God’s heavenly justice, and are given God’s eternal faith, hope, and love. We learn to love our neighbor and pour ourselves out for the world, as Christ does even now through the Holy Spirit.
And what’s more, we also learn the true value of earthly things. So in Christ we find the true meaning of beauty and pleasure. In Christ we learn to use our wealth, power, and status to serve others. In Christ we learn that worldly things and even our very lives are a gift from the eternal God.
In chasing after human things we become like Sisyphus, oppressed and rolling our boulder almost to the crest of that great hill, only to see it fall again and again.
Jesus and the writer of Ecclesiastes warn us that by chasing things in this world we are chasing something we can never catch, we are toiling after something we can never have, or trying to be something we can never be. But in following Christ, we put down our boulders and are freed from these meaningless vanities so that we may stand and receive something eternal and incomparable to anything found on earth.
And so when we face meaninglessness and our own finiteness, may we seek the Triune God and receive meaning in God’s eternal richness of love. And in doing so, may we all stand in awe of something that lasts forever.