This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle of lessons that we read from Ecclesiastes. It’s not the kind of book that lends itself to the way the Revised Common Lectionary uses the Old Testament. Most Old Testament readings either match the Gospel in theme or serve as a foil. So, this week, Jesus speaks about the folly of the rich man and the danger of possessions, and the despair of Koheleth (the voice in Ecclesiastes) at the futility of amassing wealth serves as backdrop. But there is more to this work than is illuminated by using it as a set for Jesus.
Vanity of vanities. The word translated ‘vanity’ refers to air or breath: fragile, insubstantial, fading, empty. Doubling the word is a Hebrew form for the intensive. So Israel’s holiest place is the “holy of holies,” and this term for utter futility means the greatest emptiness. When Koheleth says “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity,” he cries out that life is completely meaningless.
It’s not a comfortable thought. But sometime or other, we all think it.
We skip around in Ecclesiastes to pull out a set of verses to complement the Gospel. What we skip is an observation that the world keeps on turning; the years run on; one life is replaced by another in a never-ending cycle; “there is nothing new under the sun.” Human labor is a futility. What we build passes away. And the author struggles with that fundamental human question: “What’s the point?”
What’s the point of wealth if it passes out of my hands to another? What’s the point of learning if we all end up in the grave? What good are the pleasures of life – wine and song – if we are destined for dust? Is there meaning in living only for the moment? What good are we if the memory of our lives passes away forever?
Maybe this frightening despair, this profound questioning of all that occupies our daily life, is part of the reason we avoid this book. Only it’s not just despair. There is deep and disquieting truth here. If we are living for work, for home, for family, if we aspire to fame or greatness, death robs us of it all in the end. And sometimes before the end. A career can crash and burn over a text message. Tragedy can steal loved ones. Fame is fickle. Disease random. And our recent flirtation with another great depression reminds us that wealth itself can be ephemeral.
Does it make life meaningless? Do we therefore “eat and drink for tomorrow we die?” Grab what pleasures we can and worry not about those left behind?
Or does it drive us instead to the source of life’s meaning: the God who created humanity and placed us in a garden to tend and keep it? The God who showed his face in Jesus and bids us find in him our true life?