Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
American Dream | Meadowlands™ is located right here in our own neighborhood. You have probably seen it from the Turnpike. Governor Chris Christie has called it the ugliest building in America. A recent Quinnipiac University poll revealed that 74 percent of New Jersey residents agree. Whatever you might think about its architectural esthetics, you have got to admit that it’s an eye catcher. American Dream/Meadowlands is the latest reincarnation of what started out as Xanadu about a decade ago. When complete, it will be one of the largest and most unique shopping, entertainment and tourism centers in the world. At least that is what its website promises. According to its proponents, the mall will also bring more business to the meadowlands, generate more jobs and help stimulate or stagnant economy.
What interests me about this project is its name, “American Dream.” According to the Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, the term is defined as: “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.” Much ink has been spilt lately lamenting the loss of that dream for many people in our country, the shrinking middle class and the shortage of opportunities for “upward mobility.” Debate rages in the U.S. Congress as well as in barber shops, bars and bus stops throughout this ever increasingly polarized land over how to remedy such growing inequality and loss of economic opportunity. I don’t take much interest in these arguments. I suppose that is because I am not convinced the American Dream is worth restoring. If “the realization of this ideal” means nothing more than the opportunity to shop in a big, glitzy mall offering virtually anything money can buy, I join the assessment of the “teacher” in this Sunday’s lesson from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
The teacher knows what he is talking about. He was a king of Israel. According to his own account, “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them, I kept my heart from no pleasure.” Ecclesiastes 2:9-10. This is a guy who knew prosperity. He “had it all,” everything money could buy. He spent a lifetime working, toiling and clawing his way to the top only to find out that, when he got to the top, there was nothing there. That seems to be the burden of the teacher’s message. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the tasks with which we busy ourselves are largely meaningless and the pleasures with which we seek to entertain ourselves finally dead end into boredom. More of the same will not make our lives any better.
This ought to be no secret. God knows we have seen enough child actors and entertainers rocket into the big time only to crash and burn. If money can buy happiness, the line in front of the Betty Ford clinic indicates to me that happiness is overrated. The teacher warns us that “upward mobility” is just a downward spiral that we cannot recognize because we do not know which end is up. So forgive me if I cannot get enthusiastic about anyone’s plan to stimulate the economy or restore the American Dream. More wealth and prosperity for the American people is about as helpful as giving an alcoholic a gift certificate for Stew Leonard’s. If we are lifting children out of poverty only so that they can receive paychecks for meaningless work to consume more needless commodities at American Dream/Meadowlands and do their rehab at plush residential treatment centers in the company of Lindsay Lohan, the game is not worth the candle.
I have read through the Book of Ecclesiastes several times during my life. I am not sure the teacher ever manages to think his way out of the quagmire in which he finds himself. For that we must turn elsewhere. Jesus has plenty to say about living well. He agrees with the teacher as far as his teaching goes. Wealth is not necessarily evil in and of itself, but a life dedicated to acquiring wealth or the things wealth can buy is bound to end badly. Jesus urges us in Sunday’s gospel lesson to be “rich toward God.” The wealth of God’s Kingdom is found not in “upward mobility” but by worshiping the God who “looks far down…” and “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts up the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7. To be rich toward God is to be transformed into the image of this downward reaching God who sees the poor and the needy as unique and gifted persons-not merely as potential consumers. As Paul points out in our lesson from Colossians, God’s reign promises a humanity reconciled as one Body in Christ Jesus, sharing God’s good gifts to strengthen the bonds of faith, friendship and love. Sure beats the heck out of a shopping mall, doesn’t it?
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–23
According to most scholars, the book of Ecclesiastes was composed in post-exilic Jerusalem late in the Old Testament period, most likely between 350-250 B.C.E. It stands in the biblical cannon as a direct antithesis to the preceding Book of Proverbs. Proverbial wisdom maintained that there exists a moral underpinning to the universe discernible to the wise and virtuous. “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:6-8. The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes casts serious doubt upon this assumption. He declares, “I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.
The double irony here is that both of these works are attributed to King Solomon. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon formed treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms transacting commerce and military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
However the question of Solomon’s connection to Ecclesiastes might be resolved, the teacher clearly has a literary incentive for attributing his work to the king. If ever there was a man whose wisdom could have answered the mystery of suffering, injustice and the emptiness of material success, it was the proverbially wise King Solomon. Yet not even Solomon can unravel these deep and terrifying mysteries. Most people sweat their lives away toiling under the sun and have nothing to show for it in the end. Even in rare cases, such as that of Solomon, where wisdom and hard work produce an abundance of wealth, such success brings neither joy nor satisfaction. Death will erase whatever a person manages to accomplish. Sensual pleasure finally becomes empty and boring. “So,” says the teacher, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:17.
The message of the teacher is not one that a positive, anything-is-possible, can-do culture like ours likes to hear. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, we believe fervently in the value of hard work and the blessings of prosperity it promises to bring. But I cannot tell you how many people I know who hate their jobs and are counting down the days until retirement. I have known more than a few individuals over the years whose hard work and dedication to the company earned them only the jealousy of their co-workers and termination at the hands of supervisors worried that they might get “shown up.” The world of work as we know it is often a heartless environment where the bottom line reigns and workers are little more than replaceable cogs in the machine. This reflects the experience not merely of unskilled, minimum wage employees, but also that of more highly compensated professionals.
“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.
The teacher could well understand the rage of the 99%, but he would have little enthusiasm for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. That is because a bigger slice of the pie will not bring about the better life for which such folks seemed to hunger. Life is no better for the 1% at the top of the heap. They will learn soon enough that their acquisitions and achievements amount to “vanity and chasing after wind.” So King Solomon discovered:
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it? I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
Perhaps the teacher can help those of us in the church begin changing the conversation about wealth and poverty which too often mirrors the partisan divide in our country. We need to focus our discussion on what makes life good rather than accepting uncritically the American Dream of middle class “upward mobility” as the good life and then arguing about how to get there. The teacher can help us deflate the notion that the good life depends on satisfying an endless thirst for accumulation that finally will exhaust the planet and leave us empty and despondent.
This psalm is a wisdom psalm in the same tradition and genre as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. For this reason, most scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile. Again, while I think this is probably correct, I also believe that the psalmist might very well be working with material reaching back to the Davidic monarchy. Thus, when we speak about the age of this psalm we need to be very precise about what we mean. The material utilized might very well be ancient indeed, even though the composition took place at a later date and subsequent editing was done more recently still.
The theme here is consistent with what we have seen in Ecclesiastes. Death is the great equalizer before which the wise and the foolish, rich and poor come to the same end. The jubilant refrain appears twice in the psalm: “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” Vss. 12 & 20. The psalmist is particularly scornful of people who “trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches.” Vs. 6 Their wealth cannot ransom them from the grim reaper. If you were to read on to verse 15 (not in our reading), you would discover that the psalmist is more optimistic than the teacher. Of him/herself, s/he says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Most likely, this is an expression of confidence in God’s power and readiness to rescue the psalmist from the power of his/her wealthy enemies rather than an expectation for immortality or resurrection. Still, the psalmist maintains confidence in the moral underpinnings of human existence that the teacher has long abandoned.
It is interesting that this psalm (like many wisdom psalms) is addressed not to God but to the psalmist’s fellow Israelites. See also, Psalm 37; Psalm 52; Psalm 53. Biblical prayer is never an entirely personal matter. The psalmist’s expression of confidence in God encourages other worshipers to place their trust in God as well and call upon God’s saving power in their own circumstances. Even those psalms which appear to be intensely personal have been preserved and included in Israel’s public worship book for use by the whole people of God.
To refresh your recollection concerning the background of the Letter to the Colossians, see the synopsis by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament. For my thoughts about its authorship and why I continue to refer to the writer as “Paul,” see my post of Sunday, July 14th.
The first four verses summarize Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of the future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and head of the church which is his body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler, that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.
“Do not lie to one another.” Vs. 9. This admonition seems almost trivial and superfluous in its simplicity. Yet truthfulness is the most critical ethical demand for the community of disciples. Without complete honesty and transparency, it is impossible for the “love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” to exist. When you think about it, so much of day to day life is sustained by an elaborate network of lies. There are the lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live with the actions in our past we cannot help but know are wrong. There are the lies we tell each other to cover the imperfections in our marriages, the failures we experience in raising our children and the lack of success and recognition we feel in the work place. Of course, there are the lies that our society tells itself in order to continue believing in its goodness and the rightness of its causes. Too often, church is the place where we put on our “Sunday best.” There seems to be a tacit agreement that we will not probe too deeply into each other’s lives. There is an unwritten rule against shaking each other’s façade of well being. Yet while that might keep us from getting hurt, it will also finally prevent our being healed.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be a truthful people. We know that “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Luke 12:2. Consequently, there is nothing to be gained from lying. Our lies and the lies of all people will be exposed in the end. Therefore, we live our lives conscious of the fact that we have no secrets. The whole truth will come out in the end, so it is best to make peace with the truth now. It is best to start living in the truth today so that when it is finally revealed to the entire world, it will be our friend and not our enemy.
Confession of sin is the ultimate expression of truthfulness. It takes an enormous degree of humility to confess before God and one another that we are not the people we pretend to be; that our families are not the models of domestic tranquility we try to project to the world; that our marriages are struggling; that we work in an environment where we are not valued. In a culture that values independence, individuality and self sufficiency, it is hard to confess that we need God’s healing forgiveness and that we need one another’s support to become whole. Yet such honesty is also liberating. It takes a lot of energy to keep in place a carefully orchestrated network of lies. Paul reminds us here that we don’t have to tire ourselves anymore with play acting. We can drop the mask and be assured of a welcome-just as we are.
This parable begins with a dispute between two sons over an inheritance. Presumably, the father has died (though that might not necessarily be the case as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates). This leads me to wonder whether the “rich fool” in Jesus’ parable that follows is not actually the father of these two sons. The parable concludes with the question: “and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Could the answer be in the opening interchange between Jesus and the brothers? The man’s wealth will go to his two sons where it will create disharmony and animosity for his family-not feasting and merriment as he supposed. Obviously, for father and for sons, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Vs. 15.
Taken by itself, the parable is long on what “abundance” is not and short on what it is. I have to tell you that this fellow in Jesus’ parable has done nothing my own financial advisor has not urged me to do. He experienced a good year and wisely (as my advisor would no doubt agree), he put away a substantial amount of profit for the years to come. We call that retirement planning. Jesus calls it stupid. Why? Part of the answer may lie in the rich man’s soliloquy. Oddly enough, this man appears to be pathologically lonely. He has no one with whom to share the good news of his bountiful harvest or anyone to congratulate him. He must do that for himself. He also has no God to thank, so naturally he takes credit for his own good fortune. He has no one with whom to share his bounty and so he concludes: “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for yourself; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” Vs. 19. The future he paints for himself is hardly a life worth living. We are left with the image of a man sitting alone at his table, eating, drinking and trying very hard to be merry-by himself.
Not until the end do we get a hint at where Jesus is going with this. “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Vs. 21. A little later on in this same chapter Jesus spells out for us exactly what it means to be “rich toward God.” “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34. Jesus’ call is to a life of abundance found not in accumulation but in generosity and relinquishment. What we possess we will surely lose and to suppose otherwise is, well, foolish. But when we are possessed by the One who promises us an eternal kingdom built not upon accumulated wealth, but on the bonds built through sharing, compassion and faithfulness, there is no place left for anxiety or loneliness.
This brings us right back full circle to the American Dream/Meadowlands which would revive the economy by selling us a ticket to everything money can buy. Economy built on an orgy of self centered and unsustainable consumption? How very foolish!