The first reading for this particular Sunday is taken from the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Ecclesiastes. The first line of the reading tells us that it is written by someone known as Qoheleth. Actually this word is more a designation or title rather than a name. The closest English equivalent would be “the preacher” or “the presider.” So this book is probably made up of a series of sermons or teachings about human life.
The teachings that the book offers are terribly dour or disheartening. We hear a decidedly disillusioned cry at the very beginning of the book – everything is vanity, everything is empty. With a taste for shocking paradox that was characteristic of him, Sir Edwyn Hoskyns used to say that Ecclesiastes is the most Christian book in the Old Testament! What he meant was that Ecclesiastes is a ruthless exposure of what human life is apart from God and, if taken really seriously, prepares the way for a hearing of the gospel of Christ. Ecclesiastes is not so much good news as it is the bad news that has to be heard before the good news becomes audible. “Vanity of vanities” — all of human life is ultimately futile and meaningless if viewed in itself, apart from God.
Those who framed the lectionary for Sunday Mass have paired this reading with a parable from Luke’s Gospel that is also a commentary on human life. Someone approaches Jesus and asks him to arbitrate a dispute about an inheritance. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that everything written in St. Luke’s Gospel after chapter nine must be read in light of the fact that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem where he knows that he is going to be handed over to the elders and scribes who will put him to death. Imagine for a moment how silly a dispute about inheritance must seem to a man who knows he is about to die.
The parable is about a man who is faced with a non-problem; namely, he has more than he really needs. Anyone who has been with Jesus for a while would quite probably expect that Jesus would tell this man that if he has more than he needs, he should give the excess to someone in need. However, this man decides to build bigger barns so that he can store up what he doesn’t need and keep it for himself. In other words, he decides that wealth is the priority of his life.Then quite unexpectedly, Jesus reveals that this very fortunate land owner is the epitome of foolishness because he will be dead by morning.
Quite remarkably, the second reading, the last installment in our continuous reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, includes something of the same theme as the other two readings; namely, that being concerned about the material riches of our lives here on earth must really be secondary to our concern for the state of our spiritual lives. The gifts that God has blessed us with were meant to be shared. St. Paul is very strong about this in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he enumerates the many gifts that God has shared with us. He reminds us that all of these gifts are useless and meaningless if they are not used for the community as a whole. God has created everything and has portioned it out so that all can share equally. However, our human concerns have overruled God’s intentions and has developed into a situation where one tenth of one percent of the world’s population has accrued ninety-nine percent of the world’s wealth. Not only that, but in the greed that has gripped these people, our environment has been systematically destroyed so that as time goes on, it will not be able to sustain human life in the future. Instead of changing our way of life, we spend time, like the man and his brother in the parable, arguing about who should receive the larger part of the inheritance that was given to all.
Who of us hasn’t heard the quip, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.” While the saying finds its origin in the Scriptures, even these words has have lost their original meaning. Now we have used them as a way to justify our greedy way of life rather than as a warning against it. As Qoheleth is quick to remind us, both the rich and the poor will go down to the grave. Then we will certainly know the importance of God in our lives.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator