Aug 4, 2019: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave his property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.

Ecclesiastes is the fourth of the wisdom books of the Old Testament, and one of the most intriguing books in the Scriptures.  The book’s twelve chapters all deal with the same theme: the uselessness of human things, which it describes as “vanity of vanities.”

Qoheleth, sometimes identified as

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! 

The first verse sets the tone; the word “vanity” appearing five times.  The construction “vanity of vanities” is the way the superlative is expressed in Hebrew.  The word itself means breath or vapor, and denotes transitoriness or lack of substance.  It is from this that we get the idea of meaninglessness.

Qoheleth is not a proper name, but an occupational title: it describes the position of one who speaks in an assembly, generally regarded as a teacher or preacher.  Sometimes identified as King Solomon himself, he is an old man at the end of his life, musing, as older people often do, on the emptiness and futility of things.

All things are vanity!

It is clear from the context of the book that Qoheleth is someone who has had it all and seen it all: wealth, power, sensual pleasure, and the refined delights of the mind.  He could not be more emphatic in his pronouncement.  He not only employes the superlative form, he repeats it and then restates his verdict: All is vanity!

For here is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune.

Qoheleth provides an anecdote to illustrate his point.  According to conventional Wisdom teaching, one should be able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, provided it was done in a fitting manner.  Good work should be rewarded.  However, here the transitoriness is found in life itself: it seems the man does not live long enough to enjoy his goods.

Further, these goods will go to one who did not earn them, so there is a double inequity.

For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.

From this example, Qoheleth frames his conclusion in the form of a rhetorical question, a technique that draws the reader into the argument.  The man in his story put great effort into his work, including labor itself and anxiety day and night.  Then he asks: And what did it get him?  As we are fond of saying today, you can’t take it with you.

The suggestion is that satisfaction is to be found at the completion of a task, in the ultimate fruits of the labor — and when this expectation is not met, frustration sets in and the entire enterprise is considered pointless, meaningless, futile.  It’s important to note that the author of Ecclesiastes had no concept of an afterlife to frame this mindset; he is simply stating that amassing wealth simply isn’t worth the effort.

He isn’t trying to convince us that life has no meaning; rather, he is urging us to let go of all the attachments and expectations of this world that prevent us from surrendering ourselves utterly to God.  Pleasure, knowledge, power, and riches are all good things, but they are not God.

2nd Reading – Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. 
For you have died,
and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 
When Christ your life appears,
then you too will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry. 
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed, for knowledge,
in the image of its creator. 
Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.

Today is the final installment of our study of Colossians.  Last week’s reading was instruction about baptism.  This week we hear the beginning of his instruction to us on living the Christian life.

Brothers and sisters: If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,

Once again Paul begins his discourse with the indicative/imperative form: You have been raised with Christ, so act as risen people.

The exhortation to “seek what is above” means to seek heavenly things, instead of focusing on earthly priorities.

where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Taken from Psalms 110:1, the image of the ascended Jesus being seated at God’s right hand conjures the image of a heavenly imperial throne room.  The right side is the side of power for most (i.e., right-handed) people, and because power is ascribed to that side, anyone who is stationed there is close to the seat of power and participates in that power.

Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.

The things above are the things of God, things that are essential for salvation, things with ultimate meaning.  They belong to the realm of the redeemed.

Paul is encouraging them to seek the higher things — not just to discover them, but to live by them.

“Let us think upon the things that are above, on the heavenly things, and meditate on them, where Christ has been lifted up and exalted. But let us forsake the world which is not ours, that we may arrive at the place to which we have been invited. Let us raise up our eyes on high, that we may see the splendor which shall be revealed.” [Aphraatees the Persian Sage (A.D. 336-345), Treatises 6,1]

For you have died,

In baptism, we die to sin and are raised in Christ.

“By baptism men are grafted into the paschal mystery of Christ; they die with Him and rise with Him” (Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 6).

and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Having died to human life with Christ, the Christian is no longer attached to the material things of this life, but to the spiritual things of a life “in God.”

The statements about dying with Christ and being raised with Christ are presented in the perfect tense.  This is not a dimension of some future expectation, it is an accomplished fact.  They are indeed joined with Christ, and as such, they are already with Christ in God.  They have not left this world, but they are summoned to be attentive to the things of another world.  In fact, they live in two worlds, or to use eschatological language, they have already entered “the age to come.”

When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.

An example of a complex eschatological view: “already, but not yet.”  Joined to Christ, Christians are already living in the final age, but this age of fulfillment is not yet complete. Christians will have to wait until Christ is manifested in glory before the value of their well-lived lives is acclaimed; until then, they will have to accept misunderstanding, vilification, even persecution.  When Christ appears, they will be vindicated.

“But what did he go on to say? ‘When Christ appears, your life, then you also will appear with Him in glory.’ So now is the time for groaning, then it will be for rejoicing; now for desiring, then for embracing. What we desire now is not present; but let us not falter in desire; let long, continuous desire be our daily exercise, because the one who made the promise doesn’t cheat us.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 385), Sermons 350A,4]

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:

Paul presses on with his censure of the things of the earth, identifying them with moral depravity and exhorting them to die to a sinful way of living.

immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Stop lying to one another,

He lists some of the vices to which believers are inclined, despite their new existence in Christ.  This is another example of Paul’s already-but-not-yet eschatological perspective.

Of the vices listed, four are of a sexual nature, the fifth is more general, and the last is contrary to truth and love, the basis of life in common.

since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, 

The transformation the Colossians have undergone is characterized as putting off the old self and putting on the new, as one would change clothing.  This may well be yet another allusion to the change of garments that was part of the ritual of baptism.

which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.

Paul combines the garment metaphor with the notion of renewing the self that was originally made in the image of God.  Sin distorts the way one manifests the image of God; transformation in Christ renews it.

“Seek nothing with exterior gold and bodily adornment; but consider the garment as one worthy to adorn him who is according to the image of his Creator, as the apostle says: ‘Stripping off the old man, and putting on the new, one that is being renewed unto perfect knowledge according to the image of his Creator.’ And he who has put on ‘the heart of mercy, kindness, humility, patience and meekness’ is clothed within and has adorned the inner man.” [Saint Basil the Great (ca. A.D. 370), Homilies 17,11]

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision,

Finally, Paul insists that in this new way of living, the old distinctions between one group and another mean nothing.

barbarian, Scythian,

The term translated as “barbarian” is barbaros, which refers to a person who does not know Greek. The Scythian reference is the equivalent of saying “a savage from the north.”

Even the uncivilized have a home in Christ.

slave, free;

While the actual distinctions do not fade, the bias that accompanies them has dissolved.  There are no longer such separations.

but Christ is all and in all.

As Paul pointed out in the opening verse of this passage, Christ is completely victorious and Lord of all.

All people have been made one in Christ.

Gospel – Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” 
He replied to him,
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” 
Then he said to the crowd,
“Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Then he told them a parable. 
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. 
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. 
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”

Since our encounter with Jesus last week in Luke’s gospel where he taught the “Our Father,” he has driven a demon out of a mute man, taught several parables, and pronounced six woes on the Pharisees. During this time, a crowd of many thousands gathered and Jesus is now teaching them. Today’s reading is the parable of the rich fool, a parable found only in the Gospel of Luke.

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” 

Just before this passage, Luke tells of Jesus instructing a crowd, including his disciples, to trust God even during times of persecution.  He is interrupted by this man’s request for Jesus to adjudicate a dispute over inheritance.

Standing before the Son of God, the only thing this person can come up with is: “Tell him to give me my money.”  He might have said, “Convert my heart, so that I desire treasure in heaven,” or “Teacher, I have been treated unfairly. Teach me to love even in this difficulty.”

He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”

Rabbis were often consulted on these kinds of matters, but Jesus sidesteps the family dispute.  Jesus is not simply a means to some other end: comfort, riches, victory over an adversary.  Jesus himself is the end and purpose of our life.

If the questioner had seemed capable of it, Jesus might have responded to him the way he did to the rich man in Luke 18:22, saying something like, “Give your share joyfully to your brother and follow me.”

Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable.

Instead of responding to the man’s request, he immediately highlights the real issue: greed.

Recall that a parable is a teaching form from the Wisdom tradition.  It draws on what is commonplace in order to teach something deeper about life.  In this particular case, Jesus tips the audience off to the meaning of the parable before telling the story: One’s life does not consist of possessions.

“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’

Note how frequently the rich man will use the words “I” and “my.” His egotistical concerns eliminate God and neighbor from sight.

It is lawful for a person to desire what he needs for living, but if possession of material resources becomes an absolute, it erodes the moral fiber of both the individual and society.

And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”

The only way he makes use of his wealth is indulging in a life of hedonistic excess.

But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; 

The man’s death is not a punishment for his greed, it’s simply the end of his life of excess.  It points out the futility of that life: he spent it collecting what does not last and what is thereby ultimately valueless.

and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’

Possessions do not last.  At death, they are passed on to another, and there is no way of knowing whether that person will use them well or not (an echo from our first reading, see also Ecclesiastes 2:19).

Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Note that the rich man is not censured because of his wealth, nor is he criticized for not attending to the needs of those less fortunate.  His foolishness is much deeper: it is the attitude of greed that underlies his actions.  His life consists of amassing more and more.

It is foolish to devote one’s life to amassing goods and to be bereft in what matters to God.  Jesus isn’t specific here about what matters to God, but it is clear it is not material possessions.

“A person who lives as if he were to die every day – given that our life is uncertain by definition – will not sin, for good fear extinguishes most of the disorder of our appetites; whereas he who thinks he has a long life ahead of him will easily let himself be dominated by pleasures” [Saint Athanasius (ca. A.D. 320-360), Adversus Antigonum]

Connections and Themes

The readings for this Sunday pose a fundamental question: What is most important in life?  Our identity as Christians is found in the way we answer.

The transitoriness of life. The first reading speaks about the transitoriness of life.  It is all we have, and it is so fragile, so fleeting.  It seems we just learn what living is all about and then our lives begin to diminish.  We don’t have to the time to enjoy what it is we have discovered.  This does not appear to be the case with children: they seem to live the present moment with abandon, with little thought to the future.  They seem not to doubt they will have a future.  Somewhere between the naivete of children and the disillusionment of many adults is the realization that this is the life we have and it has been given to us to live fully with God and with one another.

What frequently keeps us from living life fully is the thought that we can only do so if we have accomplished particular feats, gained a certain reputation, and secured desired goods.  While there is nothing wrong with any of these goals, there is no guarantee they will deliver the fulfillment we expect of them.  And if we have denied ourselves and other the joy of real living in our attempts to obtain them, we have been wasting the life given to us.

The vanity of goods.  We need food and water to survive, we need material for clothing and shelter.  The goods of the earth are not only good, they are essential for survival and advancement.  However, they do not satisfy the deepest longings of the human spirit.  They do provide us with pleasure and challenge, but they cannot shield us from the transitoriness of life itself.  In the face of such impermanence, they are ultimately worthless.  When the fruits of the earth are not used to enhance the life of the earth, they lose their value; the spoil and even decompose.  Life itself is the far greater good; goods only enhance life.

Life hidden with Christ in God.  Recognizing the transitoriness of life and the vanity of goods, we come to see that the only reality worthy of our total commitment, the only reality not transitory or vain, is our relationship with God in Christ.  Though made of dush and thus subject to perishability, we are joined with Christ and promised imperishability.  Having died to the vanities of this world, having taken off our old selves with their evil desires, we can now live in this world with a new self, in generosity rather than greed, with openness to others rather than religious or social biases.  In our commitment to Christ, we will discover that we can transform what is transitory in life by giving it away in love.  If we can live in this way, life is anything but vanity!

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