From the Gospel this morning:

Take heed and avoid all covetousness: for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

This morning in the readings from Holy Scripture we heard the voice of a young man and the voice of an old man.  The young man is Jesus, only thirty or so at the time – which is young indeed in my estimation – and we heard him in the well-known passage from St. Luke about the folly of building bigger barns. The old man calls himself Qoheleth, which means the Preacher.  He is the author of the book Ecclesiastes.

 Qoheleth’s work contains some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry in the Bible, and even today many people who know nothing else from Scripture can quote, by heart. lines he wrote nearly thirty-three hundred years ago.

For instance:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to take up what is planted; .  .  .
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; .  .  .
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.

I’m not really sure what that means, nor do I think that whatever it means is actually true, but as poetry the lines are unforgettable.

However, it is not simply for his poetry that Qoheleth is admired.  Some people find his writing daring and a great surprise, for there is a skeptical, even agnostic streak in the wisdom of the Preacher.  “Vanity.  Vanity.  All is vanity and a striving after wind” seems to some people a thrilling and off-beat thing to hear in the Bible, which is, we are told, a book of faith.

The author is an old man, world-weary, one might say, and he views human life from that perspective, and he views it also from the outside, as a spectator.  Qoheleth has seen it all, and his book is a record of his conclusions about life and the way of the world .   .   .   having seen it all.

This morning we heard him as he meditates on work and accomplishment.  He tells us:

Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool.  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity.

 As Qoheleth sees it, death is the last word on all human work and accomplishment.  Death wrenches all that you have striven for and all that you have made and done out of your control.  Someone else gets it, and there is nothing you can do.  That someone may build upon what you have done and preserve it, or he may fritter it away and destroy it.  That’s just the way it is.  The world and human life are like that.

There is no religious vision here.  Our author only observes.  He offers no advice, unless it be that one take on a certain detachment and distance.  There is no comfort except the cold assurance all find themselves and the same sad situation.  All in the same sinking boat,  and so what is vanity for you is surely vanity also for me and everybody else.

*     *     *     *     *

Jesus, the younger, man teaches from a different perspective.  If Qoheleth writes as a spectator, observing life from the outside, Jesus teaches out of his knowledge of life from the inside.  Jesus teaches as one who observes not only the way of the world, but also the workings of the human heart and soul:  for Jesus, of course, was sent not to be only an observer, and not just a teacher, but – much, much more than that –  to be the Savior, the One appointed by God to heal the hurt of the human heart and soul.  And Jesus knows the way of the human heart and soul.  He knows it from within:  from within our hearts our hearts, which he knows as Savior and healer.  And he knows this from within his own human and most sacred heart as well.

But, though younger, Jesus doesn’t really write as a young man.  And strangely enough, on the face of it, his conclusions are rather the same of those of the older man we heard from earlier.  Think of his teaching in the Gospel today.  A parable.  A man has had an extremely successful year.  There has been a bumper crop.  And so he says to himself:

“What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops .  .  .  I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.  Take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’”

But God said to him, “Fool. This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be ?”

That’s not unlike what we heard earlier from the Preacher, is it?  But there is a difference, for whereas Qoheleth only observes, Jesus proposes a change of life.  And whereas the Preacher sees death as the last word on human life, Jesus presents it as a signal, as a sign, that there is more to human life than the things and the life of the world.  He tells us, “ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

For, you see, the man building bigger barns sought his happiness and his security in his success, in what he had done and what he possessed.  There was plenty.  More than enough,  Bigger barns were needed, and now life could go on and on with no more troubling thought than what to eat and what to drink, and how to play.

That sounds great, and it might be fun for a month or two. But is that really life ?  Is that – larger barns, eat, drink, play – is that what human life is all about ?  This is the question posed by Jesus parable.  Is that really life for the soul, particularly, when in an instant – unexpected, complete surprise – that life can vanish.  Is not real life to be found somewhere other than in possessions and play ?  And is there not a security more certain than bigger barns ?

Jesus thinks that the human heart and soul have a much more pressing need than possessions.  And the life he lived is an example of how real security is not to be found in the cards that one is dealt – be they bad or, just as important, be they good. Security and trust must rest upon a foundation more certain, and unshakable, and eternal than the life of the world. They must rest, says the Savior, on that solid rock which is the life of God.

Again from the Gospel:

Take heed and avoid all covetousness: for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


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