God's Word on Sunday: Enjoy the gift of life God has given us

  • July 23, 2019

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

The author of Ecclesiastes will never win a prize for being the most joyful or hopeful individual in the Bible. 

He began his work with the familiar “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” drumbeat. Why bother with anything, he implies, because in the end it doesn’t matter. All your toil and efforts mean precious little.

The Hebrew word translated as vanity — hebel — suggests smoke, mist or vapour. It is the perfect word to describe something that is illusory and meaningless. It is not an uplifting message and there was some pushback among rabbis over whether it contained a religious message. It seems pessimistic and does not talk very much about God. 

Surprisingly, its message about times and seasons for everything generated a pop song in the 1960s — “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — and seems to have lodged in the consciousness of many people. Perhaps it strikes a chord, for many people ask what life means, if anything. 

Towards the end of Ecclesiastes, its message focuses on enjoying this life, especially the gift of each day, without a lot of worrying about the future. That is the key to its success: It teaches that many of the things that we deem important are not, and many of the goals that we strive after are definitely “vanity” or empty. 

Many mystical traditions also insist on living in the present moment and enjoying the gift of each day. 

Jesus taught similar ideas with His words about the lilies of the field and birds of the air in Luke and Matthew. Worry cannot add an inch to our height or a minute to our life. In fact, it often affects them in a negative way. 

To sum up the message of Ecclesiastes, the life that we construct for ourselves in our minds is often hebel hebelim, vanity of vanities. Do not chase after false or illusory things; enjoy the gift of life that God has given us.

That message is echoed in Colossians. It urges us to seek the things that are above — spiritual, ultimate things rather than trivia. Earthly things pull us down. They are rooted in fear, selfishness, worry, competition, greed, intolerance and violence. We are advised to root out those tendencies within us. 

After all, the Lord wants to renew us and clothe us with a new self. We will be renewed in God’s knowledge and wisdom rather than our own and we will see the world, with all its divisions and separations, as definitely an illusion of human creation.

All of this is well illustrated in the Gospel story. Two men have an emissary from God standing before them and all they are concerned with is getting him to settle their squabble over money. This is the perfect contrast between the things above and those things that are earthly. 

Jesus told a story of the industrious man who constantly outdid himself in production. His focus was always on what was bigger and more. The story ended with a twist: Despite all the grand plans that the man made, that very night he would lose his life. 

What good was his money and his estate then? He would pass from this life without ever learning what it meant or the lessons we were put on Earth to learn. 

Jesus made an interesting distinction between those who are merely rich and those who are rich toward God. Only the second has ultimate meaning; the first is merely useful in the short term. 

If only we pursued riches towards God with the same intensity as we do material wealth. The teaching does not invite laziness or teach that wealth is evil, only that we need to know our real purpose on Earth and use it to its full advantage. 

The last thing a multi-billionaire needs is more money. If we learn how to love and respect our fellow human beings, as well as the value and practice of compassion and mercy, then we are rich indeed. If we fail to do so, then we are paupers, regardless of our material wealth.

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