Fools or Not (Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14,2:18-23;Colossians 3:1-11;Luke 12:13-21)
The writer who gave us Ecclesiastes can certainly not be accused of painting an over-optimistic portrait of life. Probably most contemporary Christians have never really read much of this book at all because, frankly, it’s a bit of a “downer,” and, life’s depressing enough without getting depressed from reading the Bible. Nonetheless, this is our lesson today.
Let me start with a little vocabulary lesson. This writer’s Hebrew title and name of the book is Qohelet, a form derived from a verb meaning “to gather,” and, so “a gatherer,” of everything, anything, wealth, health, wisdom, etc. Qohelet began by saying “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.” The word translated “vanity” itself means either “breath,” or “vapour,” or maybe even “mist” or “fog.” It’s something visible, but insubstantial. “The Gatherer” says that everything – all of life – is like trying to gather up the fog. As I say, it’s just possible to see it, but impossible to capture it, or hold onto it or get one’s arms (or head) around it. The word comes to be used of that which is useless or fruitless.
Next, the way a Hebrew talks about “the most,” or “the greatest” of something (what we grammatically call the superlative degree) is to say that it’s “the something of somethings”; like the holy of holies (the most holy), or the heaven of heavens (highest heaven), or the song of songs (the best song). Just so, vanity of vanities mean the highest degree of absurdity. Life is like trying to catch the thickest fog. It’s a frustrating waste of time.
The specific absurdity that Qohelet talks about in this passage is our work, even work done wisely. And the reason for its absurdity or futility is the fact that we never finish it. That’s, of course, true on a day to day basis, but it’s also true in a more final sense. The day comes when we have to leave our work to those who come after us, oftentimes to those who don’t have any idea what they’re doing, or even to those who think we’ve done it the wrong way all along. That will surely come at the end of our lives, but it may come earlier. I shall always carry with me the memory of leaving a job that I spent half a lifetime shaping and nurturing, in the hands of those who I knew would try to undo what I’d done and change everything. I can remember how the words of Qohelet echoed what was in my own heart:
I turned around and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun. And, What do mortals gain 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 futility (absurdity, vanity [2:20, 22-23]).
How about you, have you had to give up your work? I think of this still today, or think of it again. It’s no fun.
The Gospel lesson gives us insight into a different dimension of life. We usually call Jesus’ Parable “The Rich Fool.” The farmer isn’t painted as morally wicked. He had a problem in that his goals were all his goals. They were for him, and about him, period. Others don’t seem a factor. He said to himself “Self, My, how well you’re doing” (and he was). “Kick back, take it easy.” The bigger barns he built were simply for the fruit of his own entrepreneurial leadership, and for his own benefit.
Before he began, Luke told readers that the story was going to be about greed. In Greek, the word “greed” (pleonexia) simply means “wanting more.” However much there is, I want more. Because this rich man is so busy with himself and having more for himself, he never asked “How much is enough”? Or, “Whence does it come”? In his self-centredness, he assumed that there is never enough and that all he possessed had come from his own cleverness, industry, and toil. Indeed, one of the ties between the Gospel Lesson and the Lesson in Colossians is that word greed, which appears in both. Colossians 3:5 said that greed is idolatry. In the Bible, idolatry is putting anything or anyone in the place only God should have. It’s interesting that, in the Old Testament especially, one of the words that’s sometimes used of those things people worship instead of God (“idols’) is the word “vanity.” The rich man had the problem of putting his priorities and possessions in the place that God should have. And this made him a fool; a rich fool, but a fool nonetheless. In his self-centred universe he never considered that other people and things could or should enter in to change anything. He also forgot the great interruption to all our plans that comes to us all. He forgot death, and that this visitor comes when it will. And forgetting that, too, made him a fool.
As a matter of our own health we need to think about our own personal identity as centred in more than what we do and more than what we have, and that what we do and have is for sharing. We live in a culture that does not encourage us in that direction, but drives us in the direction, either of despair that we can’t make it, or in the direction of CEO’s who make salaries 500-1000 times what their workers do, and blinds us to the question, “How much is enough”? Or, “from whom does this come”? In the end, this can easily make fools of us. And, if we don’ take time to contemplate a better way, the changes of life (physical, mental, and spiritual) will break us.
Our Epistle encourages us to a better way. This lesson contains one of those fairly common lists of vices and virtues that Christians ought to consider. Things that are out for Christians include fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed. These words have sometimes been almost exclusively related to a misuse of human sexuality – and they surely include that – but they also transcend this easily misused gift. These terms all describe a harmful desire to use others as an object for our own gratification in some way. All such actions damage the personality, and hurt both parties, as well as their relationship. All of them say, “What I want is more important than what you want, and I’ll do as I please.” If such an attitude becomes society’s rule (as it, pretty much, is today), then it becomes hard to work together because we’re all working for ourselves. And, when we come to this place, we do fall into the category of the fool in Jesus’ parable. We also need to hear the Old Testament “Gatherer” who despaired that there comes a time when we can’t take it with us: even when “it” is our own importance and self-centredness. Our life will be required of us by the one who lent us life in the first place. Living on this earth is 100% fatal.
These texts are not as impractical as some of us may have been taught – that God and the Bible only care about life in the sweet by and by when we get to heaven. The Bible has far more to say about our life here and now than “there and then.” So, in our Colossian text, there are certain behaviours that are in for Christians: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, and thankfulness. The difference between the two lists is that the out-list leads to self-importance and self-centredness. Living in accord with the in-list counts others as important in and for our lives. Living in these ways will encourage us to ask about how others are doing, not just about a checklist of how much we have accumulated.
I have saved the most important paragraph of our Epistle Lesson until now, because it forms the rationale for rejecting certain behaviours and accepting others. Chapter 3 began: “So if you have been raised with Christ.” It really means: “Since it is true that you have been raised with Christ.” (This is a Greek condition of the First Class, one assumed to be true.) The Apostle assumed that the readers and hearers have been raised with Christ. Down in verse 3 the reason why we need to be raised is stated bluntly, “For you died.” This figurative language is paralleled by what Paul said about being a Christian in Romans 6:4: “We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as [he] was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul wrote: “If anyone be in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”
In Christ, God remakes our universe, not just our hearts. Our world is changed; we are not our own. We neither live nor die to ourselves. And we understand that we are not only living in and for this world, but we have a place in God’s presence forever through what Christ has done. Life in God’s presence encourages (and even mandates) certain things and excludes others. To paraphrase the text: “Since it is true that you have died and been raised with Christ and have priorities beyond yourself and the present, live in such a way as to show it. Other people can tell!” That’s really practical advice, and as far as possible from “pie in the sky when we die.” It is understanding that life in God’s presence requires certain life skills. Practice them now before the words of the Old Testament and the Gospel come true and we must leave things to others.
To paraphrase some of these good qualities: Relate to others with compassion and kindness. Think as highly of others as you think of yourself; don’t insist on being first in line. Be strong enough not to insist on your own way. Take the long view of relationships, understanding that we all slip up. Don’t give up on people, don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on God. Then you will live in harmony and wholeness. Then, when life’s interruptions come, you will recognize them as opportunities, as your friends, or as those friends you haven’t met just yet. And, when death does come, you will not hear the word, “Fool,” but the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.
Without wishing to brag about this congregation, I rejoice that we have decided to make our major efforts about ministry out there, encouraged by learning, worship, and sharing in here. I am encouraged that we have wanted to share our greatest asset, our facility with our community when the opportunity arises. What the future holds for us, I do not know. I know that there are changes likely to happen when I retire from the seminary at the end of the year and, among other things, the budget takes a hit. Like The Gatherer I know that one day I’m going to have to leave this work to others, and where any of that will go is beyond our knowing. One of the sayings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount has become very important to me as I think on all of this:
Do not worry, saying, what will we eat? Or what will we wear? (or how will we pay our bills?)…but strive first for God’s own reign within and without, and what is consistent with God’s loving standards in the world, and all these things will be given you as well.
And he concluded the section: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Take care to do the work God has given until we can’t.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.