To be with Christ, we must be like Him

  • July 27, 2013

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 4 (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Luke 12:13-21)

A visit to the ruins of an ancient city can be a sobering experience. Among the decaying remnants of glorious and powerful empires we find the debris of once-vibrant cultures and the everyday lives of its long-dead inhabitants. Inscriptions preserve a few names that may have made people tremble at one time, but for the most part, the tombs contain what is left of countless anonymous and forgotten people.

This would be the perfect setting for a reading of the rather gloomy and pessimistic Book of Ecclesiastes. The rather dispirited and cynical author recites an endless cycle of human activity and observes that there is nothing new under the sun. He wearily concludes that everything is “vanity of vanities.” The Hebrew word that we translate as vanity means mist, vapour, emptiness and futility — something unreal and fleeting. His conclusion: enjoy the present and live a good life, because everything else is pretty useless.

Why was such a grim and pessimistic book included in the Hebrew canon? In fact, many rabbis and later on Christians voiced their objections. The book takes a dim view of many traditional beliefs and has a strong rationalistic streak. God is described in rather abstract and distant terms. But more insightful views prevailed and Ecclesiastes is a treasured part of our tradition, even inspiriting a popular song during the 1960s. The book exhorts us to lead a simple, moderate and reverent life. Be grateful for the gifts of God’s providence and for the beauty and simplicity of ordinary life. Take time to enjoy the blessings and joy of the here and now. Human strivings are futile and empty only when compared with the majesty, power and wisdom of God. Don’t make an idol out of achievement; let God be God and be content with the limitations of human life.

The things that we think are so important and on which we spend so much time and energy are fleeting. If we are obsessed with illusory and passing things we will miss out on the happiness and pleasure of life itself.

Not a bad message for a frantic and frenetic world in which there is less and less time for relationships, enjoyment and things that really matter. Now we know why Ecclesiastes made the cut and is in the canon.

Colossians has a similar message but with its sights set a bit higher. It too warns of being captivated by what is not real, and it exhorts us to “seek the things that are above” — in other words, recognize the spiritual purpose of life. We are engaged in soulbuilding while on Earth, and the kind of person we become is the only thing that we can take with us. If we want to be with Christ, we need to be like Him as much as we can before we leave this life. This is the only time we are given so it is important to use it well.

The spiritual purpose of life is brought home forcefully by Luke’s parable of the rich man. He is a very industrious and hardworking fellow and probably a fairly decent person. He throws himself into building, buying, amassing capital, expanding — he would be very successful today. It is all for nothing: his life ends very suddenly and without any warning. His wealth will go to someone else. Like so many people, he was captivated by the “things that are below” and missed the whole point. Things that are not tangible or immediately profitable — like things of the spirit — get shoved into the background and gradually fade in urgency and importance. The present moment is all that we have and all that we are guaranteed. Lives can and do end suddenly and prematurely. Plane crashes, car accidents, natural disasters, health problems and countless other events can snuff out lives that are successful, important, dear to others and holy. No one is immune.

As Jesus stated in the parable, we will be measured not by wealth, reputation or success. Compassionate giving and service is not a hurried project or afterthought but a life’s work.

Living one’s life well means leaving the world a better place for having been here and being a source of hope and blessings for others.