Ecclesiastes 1:2 Luke 12: 13-21
18th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME.
31st JULY 2016.
Deacon Tony van Vuuren
Our first reading this evening is part of a very pessimistic guide to living; but for the practical person it may be a wake-up call to examine one’s life and priorities. The author of the book of Ecclesiastes, said to be a very old man when he wrote his short book, expresses a sense of weariness with life, a feeling of no longer finding pleasure or meaning in the things that human beings strive for.
The best translations of vanity as used in Ecclesiastes are “absurdity” or “futility.” So, “all is vanity” means that all is absurd or futile. It is as if a person has reached the end of his days and looking back finds it absurd that his life is almost over and he realizes he has invested his precious energies on things that used to give him joy, but now leaves him with a sense of emptiness and pointlessness. His life has been futile! It’s an attitude of mind which is important to take seriously from the standpoint of belief in God and belief in Christianity.
There’s a tendency in the promotional literature and preaching of many Christian churches to constantly strike a positive, up-beat note, to claim in a rather simplistic way that Jesus is the solution to all of life’s problems, that Christian faith brings happiness and contentment and inner peace.
But one of the problems with that approach is that it doesn’t take into account, or doesn’t take seriously enough, the painful and depressing experiences that so many people have. No reflection on the meaning of existence, especially a Christian reflection, rings true if it hides or tries to evade the bleaker side of life and the reasons for human despondency.
If we think about the sorts of experience that people we know, even some of our closest loved ones, have had that shake their basic trust in others, or their confidence in themselves; experiences of hurt or injustice or terrible loss or emotional breakdown; the sort of experience that although they may be able to pick up the pieces afterwards, they can never simply resume an attitude of carefree happiness again.
The great value of the book of Ecclesiastes, part of our heritage of spiritual wisdom literature – is that it stops us from taking a glib attitude towards people’s suffering and the tragic events that happen to them. It reminds us that a state of depression isn’t something to be judged negatively, it’s something that can be compatible with faith in God.
In fact, taking those experiences seriously can be the starting-point for a far deeper faith in God, and individuals who have been broken in some way are often far closer to God than believers who have never really suffered or been deprived in any major way and so still manage to maintain a very blithe and optimistic outlook on life.
Having said that, the main point here is that those experiences, and the state of mind that comes from them, are a good starting-point for faith, not a good end-point.
God doesn’t judge people negatively when they feel depressed or weary. But in Luke’s gospel the attitude that Jesus does condemn is the attitude that makes material possessions and accumulating wealth the main purpose of existence.
Jesus tells us “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions.” And He goes on to challenge those “who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.” So what actually matters to God? The lesson of this parable should be obvious to all, but it is perhaps as difficult to put into practice as it is obvious.
The difficulty for us is to be in this world and not of it, to collect the necessary goods of this world by honest labour and yet remain detached from them, to possess but not be possessed by worldly riches, and maintain an honest relationship with all whom we come into contact with is an ideal to which our weak human nature responds very reluctantly.
We are told that living a life rich in what matters to God is what a good life really is. In today’s day and age, what does that look like?
This question applies not only to one single choice but to everything in our lives. What matters in our families, neighbourhoods, churches, offices, schools, country, and the world should align to what matters to God. That begins with each one of us.
It’s important to evaluate not just general values, but our values in action, how they play out in everyday life. The old saying is; “Actions speak louder than words” and so they do. Perhaps if we take a deeper look at how we spend each day, we might get a more accurate view of the God-like quality of our life or absence of it.
Life is not only about the time we spend doing things, but the quality of that time. An honest reflection can be quite sobering. We might even wind up saying to ourselves “you fool!”
Why wait until the end? Why not put this question to ourselves now. “What really matters to God in my life and what am I doing about it?”
If we were to make a list of what we believe would keep God awake worrying all night, a list of what specifically matters to God; what would be on it?
The Gospel reading today poses more questions than answers for me. Let’s not allow our lives to be all vanity! It’s a good time to reflect again on our values, our treasure, and our soul.