More Reason to Hope than Meets the Eye
Aug 04, 2019
More Reason to Hope than Meets the Eye
It happened again, my initial response to today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes is predictable. Every time it’s one of the assigned readings, the same word is on my lips as I finish the final verses: “What do morals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
Can anyone guess what my response is? (I’ve mentioned it previously, although perhaps not in reference to this reading.) It’s “CHARMING.” That’s in honor of a lady in my first congregation who met any conversation or comment that she deemed to be rude or disconcerting or unacceptable with a roll of her eyes and a disgusted one-word assessment, “Charming!” I can’t quite decide why I always find her exclamation coming to mind upon reading Ecclesiastes, chapters 1 and 2, other than it seems so, well, so direct. Might it be too direct, and perhaps with too much of a ring of truth?
Still…I decided to focus on Ecclesiastes today, even though it’s sometimes labeled the most disheartening book of the Bible. That’s not just because I like to give myself a challenge every now and then, but also because there is reality in these words, and people often nod their heads in agreement with the writer’s comment that he, “turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.”
Is there really a message only of despair in this Old Testament reading and in human existence? Let’s begin with a bit of background. The writer of these words and the title of the book have the same name. In Hebrew, it’s Qoheleth, which means teacher, particularly one who teaches in the assembly. Some scholars believe the author is Solomon, son of King David and the third King of Israel, although there’s no direct indication that that’s the case. Whoever this Teacher is, he has dedicated himself to “study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” (1:13)
What he has discovered, it seems, is that understanding “all that is done under heaven” is beyond human ability and, says commentator Elizabeth Webb, that it is foolishness to believe we can even make a dent in the vastness of what we do not know. (1) (How true … even today when advances in medicine, science, and technology provide answers, but also create more questions!)
The Teacher’s study has revealed that what often passes as wisdom is folly; it’s simply untrue. For example, popular wisdom is that the good prosper and the evil suffer. In fact, though, those who are good and who are evil often do not get what we think they deserve, the Teacher notes. And, ultimately, they face the same end – death – regardless of the person’s virtue or lack of it. This, and much more about life, is vanity, he writes.
The Hebrew word we translate “vanity” is difficult to render in English; it has multiple meanings, including vaporous, transient, ephemeral. Perhaps pointless or futile might capture the meaning? In any case, as chapter 2 begins, having established meaninglessness as the norm, the Teacher describes his search for meaning through pleasure, labor and wealth, all of which he declares to be equally vain. He then investigates the benefits of wisdom, but when he realizes death will overtake him, wonders, what is the point of great wisdom? (Do you think he needs an antidepressant?)
And so, we come to the last verses of today’s reading; he hates his labor because he’ll have to leave the fruit of his work to someone who may or may not be worthy. Therefore, he concludes, all is hopeless, drudgery and vanity. (2) Charming! Shall we all go home and put our heads under a blanket and hope someone pushes a plate of food in now and then?
Except … we need to look at the two verses that come next, and that were not included in today’s reading. We ended with, “This also is vanity,” and then, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy….”
What? Is this the same writer who has been saying that all is vaporous, that meaning and purpose cannot be found in work, wealth or pleasure and that achievements or commendable character won’t thwart death? Is he now saying that since that’s how life is, we might as well make the best of it? (You know, eat, drink and be merry!)
Yes…it’s the same writer…and there is truth in each of those statements. It’s the human story, filled with complexity and imperfection, but also with a deeper meaning, that is hinted at even in Ecclesiastes.
God, who is part of the vastness that we do not know, created us, loves us, even delights in us. A cure for the hopelessness that can permeate life is to grasp that God’s desire for us (not just us, but all of humanity) is that we find joy in life, be in healing relationship with others, expect grace to be revealed (which, for Christians, happens most fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) and offer hope to those who are overwhelmed by hopelessness.
While material abundance brings comfort, wealth provides security, achievement leads to opportunity and pleasure create excitement, and obviously these are good things, questions linger. Is our material abundance sufficient to meet the weight of meaning, significance, and joy that we seek? Can our wealth grant confidence that we are worthy of love and honor? Can achievement create dignity, and can pleasure lead to healing relationships? (3) Some might say, “close enough,” but others, including the Teacher of Ecclesiastes fame, and Jesus, would disagree.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus advises against giving finite things infinite value; he notes that the man in his parable has all he believes he wants, and more, yet it proves inadequate in insulating him from his fate.
We see examples of this – giving finite things infinite value – all the time. For example, just last evening I turned on TV and came across the show, “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress” which, for you who do not know, is a program primarily about young women shopping for wedding dresses. In yesterday’s episode, there was a lovely young woman (she would have looked good in a gunny sack) shopping for a dress. She wanted to make a statement and had a $6,000 budget.
Every dress she tried on was beautiful, but they did not meet her vision. So, she tried on a $12,000 dress; it was exactly what she wanted! But she could not afford it. That’s when the designer showed up and insisted that this wedding was the young woman’s one special day, and that the one thing everyone would remember forever was her dress. Shouldn’t it be breath-taking?
At this point, I found myself saying, “You have got to be kidding me!” I’ve presided at who-knows-how-may weddings, and I don’t remember a single dress no matter how beautiful the bride. What about you … do you remember a dress from a wedding you attended other than your own? If you do, it’s probably because it was tacky! The bride said “yes” to the dress, and probably will still be paying for it 15 years from now as the interest accumulates on her credit card. That’s an example of giving infinite value to that which is finite and underserving of such value.
The deeper message in both readings is that those things with true infinite value, the gifts of ultimate worth, dignity, meaning, relationships and, yes, life in the temporal and eternal sense, are gifts of God, given freely, to us. It’s true that life can seem futile. But, even the Teacher of Ecclesiastes cannot NOT believe there’s more reason to hope than meets the eye. AMEN