How we use our gifts

Published 6:59 pm Friday, August 13, 2010

Not a very bright tone to today’s first reading, is there?

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

In fact, these lines sum up all of Ecclesiastes. This book belongs to the wisdom tradition and is one of the latest books in the Hebrew scriptures. As you read through it, you realize it is addressed to people of means. While our congregation might not be wealthy, nevertheless, in comparison to the vast poverty of the world, most of us certainly are “well off.” So, we can’t brush the text aside as if it were addressed just to the upper crust of society.

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Ecclesiastes is a wise person’s reflections on life. In today’s passage, the sage reminds us that nothing can survive death: No success, reputation, gain or profit will last beyond a person’s lifetime.

Qoheleth’s views life with gloomy eyes and attentive ears and decides everything is in vain. It’s hard to imagine how this pessimistic book ever made it into the Hebrew canon of scripture. The author is uncertain, but because this book is attributed to Solomon, it got included in the Bible. What can we say about this somber and pessimistic reading today?

Well, it does point us to the gospel.

Ecclesiastes sobers us up in case we have been intoxicated and distracted by a reliance on what we have achieved on our own. If we base our merit and sense of self worth on what the world values and grasps, then Qoheleth says to us today, “Wake up you dreamers, what you treasure is ephemeral and lacking in permanence.” We can gain from Qoheleth’s wisdom, if his words prompt us at this liturgy to look over our lives and examine where we are investing our energies and what dominates our attention.

There is another thing Qoheleth contributes to our reflection today. Though he is one of the sages, he is very different from other traditional wisdom writers. They taught that life made sense, good deeds were rewarded and hard work resulted in prosperity and happiness.

For example, look at the Book of Proverbs: “The reward of humility and fear of the Lord is riches, honor and life” (22:4).

“The trustworthy person will be richly blessed; the one who is in haste to grow rich will not go unpunished” (28:20).


But the good don’t always gain in this life and experience shows that the humble don’t get honored. We also know the greedy and “the one who is in haste to grow rich” step over others in their treasure quest, do get rich and don’t seem to get punished.

We need sages like Job and Qoheleth to remind us that in this life we don’t always see the good rewarded, justice prevail or hard workers paid fairly for their labors. For most of the world’s poor, life isn’t fair—far from it—it is imperfect, limited and oppressive.

Qoheleth shakes the comfortable out of our dreamy, rose-colored illusions. Granted all in our congregations may not be experiencing frailty in their lives, but at least some are. So, the preacher might speak for them today, voice their frustrations and fears and speak a word of hope to them from God today.

Only Luke has the parable of the rich fool. Here we have a person who doesn’t seem to have heard Qoheleth’s wisdom about the transitory nature of the things on which we often place trust. “All things are vanity!”

Luke is beginning a section in his gospel about possessions, covetousness and anxiety: 12,13-21;22-34. The petitioner from the crowd initiates these teachings. The rich man in the parable has pinned his hopes on what he owns; but ignored who he is. This man already has enough for himself; but his appetite is for more.

And we?

Do we know when enough is enough?

A friend repeats this mantra as a daily reminder so as to avoid greed and practice a simpler life, “I have all that I want, I have all that I need.”

It’s a statement that can stir thanksgiving in our hearts as we offer today’s Eucharist. Granted, we pray for important needs in the world, and for our friends, family and church. But a simpler life view might help keep our vision and prayer focused on what’s really important.

As we hear this parable about hoarding we can reflect on what we have back home and so be moved to rid our attics, basements and garages of things we don’t need, but others might. There are many poor in our parish and community who don’t have the essentials, but for those of us who have more, we are urged by the parable to get our priorities in order and do a realistic evaluation of our lives.

“I have all that I want, I have all that I need.”

A similar statement could be said about our nation, “We have more than we want, far more than we need.” But others don’t, so let’s open our “barns” for them.

The farmer in the story isn’t a bad person. He is rich, but that’s not a sin—except in Luke’s gospel riches are looked upon with suspicion. And sure enough, as the story unfolds we discover the man’s true spirit—he is greedy and isolated from others.

Luke may be suggesting that such are the effects of riches on a person’s life.

We Americans admire rugged individualism; we extol “the self-made person.” We congratulate the ingenuity of such people; they “pulled themselves up by their own boot straps.”

Well, that’s not how people in Jesus’ world thought. Individuals were always members of a community, not viewed apart from their surroundings. Indeed, a person’s very identity was based on being a remember of a certain family, a particular tribe, a specific town, etc.

Apart from the community, a person had no identity. So, Jesus’ hearers would have been shocked by this farmer’s “rugged individualism”—he has isolated himself from the very community that gave him his identity, his sense of self. He never consults with anyone, neither God nor someone within his family or community, to discuss what to do with his excess.

Instead, he has set about tearing down his barns to build bigger ones. As far as he can tell, this farmer has had a really good year, but his gaze is turned on only himself, his conversation is only to himself.

“Boy, I’ve done real well for myself. I think I’ll expand the house … get a bigger car … stash extra money away … move to an upper class neighborhood … get a boat, etc.” He’s not a bad guy, but God calls him a fool. The man should have read Ecclesiastes and kept things in perspective.

Luke is making his usual point in this parable. Christians have to share what we have and live in trust that God will provide us with what is really important—deep and meaningful life, “daily bread” and more.

According to the ending of last week’s gospel, we will get the best gift of all from our “Abba”—the Holy Spirit—unearned, totally free.