Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity!
(Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12: 13-21)
Introduction to Mass
In todayís first reading the author of the book of Ecclesiastes expresses a sense of weariness with life, a feeling of no longer finding pleasure or meaning in the things that human beings strive for. While in the gospel Jesus pours scorn on the idea of accumulating money and possessions as the main purpose of life. Both readings, taken together, show how a disillusion with material enjoyment can be the starting-point for a deeper faith in God and a more radical commitment to the values of Godís Kingdom.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes, which we heard a short section from in the first reading, was alive about three hundred years before the time of Christ, a fairly wealthy, well-educated, upper-class person, as far as we know. His short book is unusual in the Bible because it describes a kind of philosophy of despair Ė a reflection on the meaninglessness of human life and the pointlessness of so much of human striving.
Ecclesiastes was an old man when he wrote his book, and thatís another crucial aspect of what he says: itís an expression of the weariness and the cynicism that comes often with age, when the pleasure and enjoyment that people used to get from things has faded and life has become tedious and burdensome.
Itís an attitude of mind which I think is important to take seriously from the standpoint of belief in God and belief in Christianity. There's a tendency in modern preaching and in the promotional literature of many of the Christian churches to constantly strike a positive, up-beat note, to claim in a rather simplistic way that Jesus is the solution to all of lifeís problems, that Christian faith brings happiness and contentment and inner peace.
And one of the problems with that approach is that it doesnít take into account Ė or it doesnít take seriously enough Ė the painful and depressing experiences that so many people have. No reflection of the meaning of existence Ė especially a Christian reflection Ė rings true if it hides or tries to evade the bleaker side of life and the reasons for human despair.
Iím thinking of the sorts of experience that people have that shake their basic trust in others, or their confidence in themselves Ė experiences of hurt or injustice or terrible loss or emotional breakdown Ė the sort of experience that although they can pick up the pieces afterwards, they can never simply resume an attitude of carefree happiness again.
The great value of the book of Ecclesiastes being part of the Bible Ė part of our heritage of spiritual literature - is that it stops us from taking a glib attitude towards peopleís suffering and the tragic events that happen to them. It reminds us that an attitude of depression or even despair isnít something to be judged negatively, itís something that can be compatible with faith in God.
In fact, taking those experiences seriously can be the starting-point for a far deeper faith in God, and individuals who have been broken in some way are often far closer to God than believers who have never really suffered or been deprived in any major way and so still manage to maintain a very blithe and optimistic outlook on life.
Having said that, the main point here is that those experiences, and the state of mind that come from them, are a good starting-point for faith, not a good end-point. The first reading gave the impression that Ecclesiastes hadnít got any further than the feeling that all the things that used to give him pleasure now leave him with a sense of emptiness and pointlessness. And this is where the other two readings today come in.
God doesnít judge people negatively when they feel depressed or weary. But in Lukeís gospel the attitude that Jesus does condemn in the attitude that makes material possessions and accumulating wealth the main purpose of existence.
The rich farmer in the parable is someone who hasnít even got to the stage that Ecclesiastes had got to. Heís not disillusioned with material things, heís investing all his time and energy into becoming rich and comfortable and secure Ė and itís this attitude that Jesus views with scorn.
Judging by this gospel passage Christ saw attachment to wealth, and working hard to become wealthy, as a substitute for worshipping God, an enormous distraction. And in his proclamation of Godís Kingdom he faced people with a straight choice: store up treasure for yourselves on earth or make yourself rich in the sight of God.
St. Paul makes a similar point in todayís second reading: men and women who have been genuinely converted to Christ put their trust and security in God. If thatís the case, God has an effect on us. Our contact with Christ forms our character along certain lines, we become a new person, a new self, St. Paul says. We move in the opposite direction from the farmer in the parable, with his self-centred priorities of taking life easy, eating, drinking, having a good time.
But as always, the turning-around of values and attitudes that takes place as we come under Godís rule is something that takes time. Itís significant that Ecclesiastes, to go back to him, is an old man: disillusion and detachment come with age.
Itís only natural that when weíre young, a mentality like the farmerís is more attractive. Itís as we get older that the pleasures of "having a good time" begin to fade, other things become more important and we become less absorbed in our own enjoyment.
In other words itís possible to see this aspect of the gospel that involves renunciation and detachment as being more relevant to us as we get older. Itís possible to see these demands that Christ makes as part of an adult Christian outlook, a gradual development of spiritual maturity which in many ways itís unreasonable to impose on people while theyíre still young.
In fact Ecclesiastes says, later on in his book, that an attitude of enjoying life in a carefree way is appropriate when weíre young; itís when weíre older that we should get more philosophical and start to think about God, and the more serious aims of our life, while we still have time.
So the point of these readings is a point about what purposes we want to serve in life, what vocation we want to follow during our life.
We can dedicate our energies to material things that donít have any lasting value, like the farmer in the story, or we can be detached Ė or engage in a process of becoming detached Ė so as to bring out our real vocation and prepare ourselves for eternal life with God. And a sense of weariness and disillusion with worldly enjoyment, far from being negative, can often be the first step into the deeper security of Godís Kingdom.