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 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.
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.
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.”
Many of us don’t realize how today’s well-known Ecclesiastes passage contradicts the writings of other sacred authors. Those who composed our Hebrew Scriptures usually challenge Qoheleth’s belief that “All things are vanity!” Knowing nothing of an afterlife – as we know it – until shortly before Jesus’ birth, most of them looked upon wealth as Yahweh’s right here and now reward for being good. They believed if you kept your nose clean, doing what Yahweh commanded, Yahweh would grant you a long life and take good care of you during that life.
Qoheleth, on the other hand, doesn’t see any sense in spending a lifetime acquiring wealth. He’s observed that someone who hasn’t “labored over it” will eventually inherit it. “For what profit comes to someone from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he/she has labored under the sun? All their days sorrow and grief is their occupation . . . .”
How are we supposed to deal with these biblical contradictions?
In some sense we’re invited to spend our money and take our pick. The same theology doesn’t run from Genesis to Revelation. Our ancestors in the faith were convinced there are many implications – often contradictory implications - to our following Yahweh or the risen Jesus. The Scriptures they saved and collected provide us with a bunch of them.
Yet at the same time, a common theme runs through all our sacred writings: people of faith are constantly trying to discover what God wants of them.
In today’s gospel passage, Luke’s Jesus tells us what God doesn’t want: a senseless accumulation of wealth. Following Qoheleth, he warns his followers that the wealth they acquire here isn’t going to follow them into eternity. If they’re smart, they’ll work at storing up real “treasure:” the things that matter to God, the things which are transferable from this life to the next.
The Pauline disciple who authored Colossians couldn’t agree more. “. . . Seek what is above,” he writes, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think what is above, not of what is on earth.” He’s convinced that if we’ve died with Christ we’re already operating in the “above.” That means we must not only sidestep all the evils this earth offers, but also put on a “new self.” We must actually become other Christs.
Following the insights of his mentor, the writer is convinced the first step in this transformation is to recognize the risen Christ in everyone around us. Quite a task! Being human, we first have to overcome all the barriers this earth has built between one person and another. “There is not Greek and Jew,” he reminds us, “circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all.”
No wonder there are different theologies in the Christian Scriptures. There’s simply no one way to recognize that divine dimension in everyone. How do we prepare ourselves to experience that uniqueness? It isn’t just a matter of telling our minds to do so.
It takes time to pull that off. It doesn’t happen instantly. Different people are at different stages of that recognition. The American Georgetown University Jesuits, for instance, were still owning and selling slaves in 1838, based on the belief that legitimate slaves – individuals created by God as slaves – were “ontologically different” from non-slaves. It took another generation and then some for all Christians to realize that theology didn’t hold water.
Today some still struggle with recognizing the risen Jesus in gays, lesbians and transgendered persons. Add that to the perennial problem: recognizing him/her in women. We’ve obviously got a long way to go, and a lot of contradictions still to explore.