Vanities of Vanities – What is Worth Holding On To?
Wow! Now isn’t that encouraging and uplifting! No? Well then, let’s see what more might be happening here.
Let’s start with a question. Who is Qoheleth and why is this person quoted in an entire book of the Hebrew Scriptures? Maybe a couple of other questions too. Why such a discouraging/depressing perspective? What does it mean to say something is vanity?
Qoheleth is the pen name of an unknown sage, a person recognized for wisdom. These words were written about 300 years before the birth of Jesus. The text of the book of Ecclesiastes has Qoheleth claiming to be the son of King David, presumably King Solomon, who was known for his wisdom. But in the time these words were recorded, the thoughts of anyone who wrote or taught about or with wisdom might be credited to Solomon. Qoheleth is a name meaning teacher or “speaker in an assembly.” Ecclesiastes is the Latin form of the name.
The word vanity also has a particular meaning. It refers to something that is quickly passing, a vapor or a breath. It’s short-lived, without substance, futile, mysterious, hard to understand.
Qoheleth tells us that everything is short-lived and passing. Things come and go. They flourish and then they are gone. We work hard and prosper, then we die and someone else benefits from our work. We fret and worry, but in the end our worry doesn’t change things. (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23)
It’s not an easy message to hear, especially for folks, like most of us, whose culture says that if we just work hard enough, we can get ahead in life and have what we dream of having. Qoheleth says that this is just a dream that will certainly pass, regardless of how hard we strive.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a compilation of observations, proverbs, and reflections on the explanations commonly heard as humans try to account for the unpredictable nature of life and existence. The text ends with a repeat of the initial statement. “Vanity of vanities, says Quoheleth, all things are vanity!” Yet this is not the last word in the book. An editor adds a bit of explanation and hope in an Epilogue that follows this statement: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgement every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”
Many years after Qoheleth’s observations, a family was fighting over an inheritance, according to St. Luke in today’s Gospel. One of them appealed to Jesus to resolve the dispute. But Jesus refused to get into the middle of the conflict. Instead, he warned against putting too much value on riches and possessing them. He told the story of a man whose harvest was greater than expected. The barn was too small to hold it all, so he tore it down and built a bigger one. Then he rejoiced that he would have plenty for many years to come. But, as it turns out, his life was to end that very night! God asked the man, “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” (Lk 12:13-21) Jesus commented that this will be the result for anyone who holds on to treasure but is “not rich in what matters to God.”
The Psalmist (Ps 90) sings of the relationship between God and humans – the difference in perspective and years as they play out in the relationship. Our days are short. God’s are long – a thousand years are like a watch of the night, a few hours. Yet we are invited and reminded to open our hearts when we hear the voice of the Lord. And we hope and pray that we will be filled with joy and gladness all the days of our lives.
So, if the things we seek and work for are not going to last or bring satisfaction and peace to us, what are we to do? Qoheleth is right. Our time passes quickly. When we are children, time seems to take a long time to pass. As we get older, it seems to speed up every year.
St. Paul reminds the Colossians and all of us that we have been raised to new life in Christ. (Col 3:1-5, 9-11) The things that characterize life without Christ are not to be hallmarks of our lives. No lying, taking advantage of others, running roughshod over our competitors, etc. Our lives are to be based on Christ and his life. That is where and when the difference will truly appear, a perspective foreshadowed in the Epilogue of Ecclesiastes.
What, then, are we to do? All things are passing. No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, there are no guarantees of fame, long life, health, or comfort. What do we do? Just give up and laze around?
What do we hold on to? How do we hold on? To what do we hold? Many ways to phrase the question, each with a slightly different perspective. Is there a life raft of some sort to which we can cling? What can help us persevere in our lives? What do we value? What gives us hope and strength to continue? Where is the oxygen-mask we can use on this flight?
I enjoy listening to the stories told on The Moth Radio Hour when I’m out on errands in town. Each episode includes four to six stories of true-life experiences, told by the individual to whom they happened. Some are sad, some are happy, many include funny moments, some are incredibly beautiful.
I was out on errands again today and heard three stories. One was about a young man’s very funny experience presenting a science experiment to second graders. Another told of an incident of road rage that turned into a chance to re-evaluate his life and set a new course. One featured a woman injured by prejudice in childhood and the example of her father’s strength that now gives her strength to stand up and protect others today. In each story, there was a gem of wisdom and I found myself nodding and smiling at their insights.
Yes, Qoheleth is right. So is Jesus. Things that we work so hard to get in our lives may not actually be worth all the effort we put into getting them. Whether they are valuable or not, our lives are totally not our own. We cannot control or know how long we will live, when we will depart this window of life, or what will happen after our departure. All things are Vanity! Ephemeral! Passing! Even the asbestos checks my father used to joke about some people needing to have ready before their deaths probably won’t go very far…
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to hold on to. Many things are worth holding on to – laughter, joy, compassion, courage, hopefulness, community, shared efforts. As followers of Jesus, and hopefully as wise human beings, we reach out to each other. We offer a word of comfort or of hope when things are tough. We tell stories to lighten the mood. We remember the good times and search for seeds of hope in the hard times. We reflect on what we have learned through failure and hold firmly to the hope that we’ll continue to learn as we go along. We share what we have with those whose journey has left them needing the basics for life. We sit in silence with those who just need someone to be with them in time of deep loss. We share what we have learned with the children among us, preferably through stories, encouragement, songs, and humor. (Lectures just get boring…)
Life is not for the fainthearted. But life is good. It’s a marvelous gift overflowing from the great dance of LOVE that is our God. We hold on to the hope and promise of that love through thick and thin. Yes, what we see around us is passing and mysterious. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Each moment brings a new door or window opening, giving a glimpse of the underlying meaning of existence.
Here’s hoping you and I are able to hold lightly to the material things we need for our daily lives and keep in perspective the limitations of our efforts. Laugh frequently. Pray confidently. Hold close those with whom we share our lives.
The readings today are from the liturgy for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C