First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21–23; Psalm 90:3–6, 12–13; Second Reading: Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11; Gospel Luke 12:13–21
Psalm: 90:3–6, 12–13
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Reading the Word
First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:21–23
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night, their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Second Reading: Colossians 3:1–5, 9–11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Gospel: Luke 12:13–21
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Hearing the Word
Today’s readings reflect on the human desire for security and permanence. This desire can only be satisfied by looking beyond the fragile and transitory realities of this passing world which the Israelite thinker, Qoheleth, called “vanity”.
The biblical sage, Qoheleth, enjoys a doubtful reputation of a skeptic, a hedonist, or a depressed melancholic, all because he dared to say that “everything is vanity”. Making this statement Qoheleth put under scrutiny the values and practices that were accepted and cherished by the majority of the people in his day. In reality, Qoheleth was a profoundly reflective thinker in search of something that could withstand the challenge of death. Sadly, he found nothing, which led him to the famous conclusion which summarized the results of his quest – “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.
The word “vanity” as used by Qoheleth is usually grossly misunderstood. The Hebrew word translated as “vanity” literally means “vapor” or “breath”. Stating that everything is “vapor” Qoheleth did not pass a value judgment on human experiences and achievement, calling them worthless and vain, as some imagine. He meant that everything is temporary and passes away; there is nothing permanent in this world. He honestly acknowledges that death brings all human endeavours and projects to an end. Since everything ends, human beings cannot find lasting happiness and permanent fulfillment in anything that they work for, create or experience in this world.
Today’s reading presents Qoheleth’s reflection on the value of work. According to the thinking of his day, hard work and dedication would be rewarded by a prosperous and long life. However, Qoheleth honestly acknowledged that hard work does not make human life endure. All the toil, strain and concern that consumes a person’s life will, in the end, bear only a temporary and limited fruit. When the inevitable death comes, all that a person achieved and gained will be left to another to enjoy. Thus, Qoheleth concluded that hard work brings no lasting benefit. One should enjoy and find pleasure in a balanced life, and in work and achievements, but also acknowledge its limit, and not be consumed by it. This and other reflection of this kind led to the labeling of Qoheleth as a notorious pessimist. In fact, he was a realist, an honest thinker engaged in a search for something permanent and lasting that he could devote his life to, and which could give lasting meaning to his life. Sadly, his quest ended in failure because of the overwhelming and unchallenged power of death that makes all things in this world “vapor” for him.
The quest for permanence and lasting values was also on the mind of Paul when he wrote to the Colossians. He had an advantage over Qoheleth because of his experience of Christ, and the knowledge of eternal life which the Israelite sage lacked. Thus, unlike Qoheleth, he could see beyond death, which led him to very different reflections and conclusions.
Paul begins with a captivating statement that believers have already been raised with Christ. This broadens the horizon of Paul’s reflection beyond the boundary of death which Qoheleth could not cross. Christians joined by faith to the Risen Lord already have his immortal life in them. Thus, they live in an indestructible and permanent existence, while still dwelling in this passing world and in their mortal bodies. Still, the ultimate horizon of their life is joining Christ in the heavenly world; their destiny lies beyond death.
This causes a certain tension because believers are still a part of the earthly reality while already belonging to the heavenly world. Therefore, Paul reminds them that they must not lose sight of their true destiny and their future. He calls on the Colossians to set their minds on the things of heaven and focus on their true life “hidden with Christ”. This is the life of faith which will come in its full expression when Christ returns in glory.
Waiting for this event, believers must separate themselves from the moral vices, sins, and passions which are a part of this world but have no place in the future life. These aspects of earthly life are impermanent, they are “vapour” that passes away. They belong to the Colossians’ “old self” which has been “stripped off” and replaced by the new self, a new identity. Paul describes this new self as reflecting the image of God. He alludes here to the creation story where human beings were brought to life in the image of God (Gen 1:26). In this new reality, the ethnic, religious and social distinctions no longer apply – the are no more Jews and Gentiles, slaves or free, but all belong to Christ who is “all in all”.
In this beautiful passage, Paul teaches that his faithful already have eternal life because they are a new creation in Christ. Thus, they live a permanent and immortal life guaranteed by the one who overcame death. In him, believers also overcame death, to use Qoheleth’s language, they moved beyond “vanity”.
The gospel passage contains a well-known story of the rich fool. It is a tragic and ironic tale of a man who chose vanity as the goal for his life and lost. The story is set in the context of one man’s quest to claim the family inheritance from his brother. Approaching Jesus as if he were a judge, the man requests him to arbitrate in a family dispute. Jesus refuses and takes this request as an opportunity to deliver a striking critique of wealth and a warning against the dangers it brings. To make his point clear, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy man utterly preoccupied with securing his life and happiness on earth. Taking advantage of an abundant harvest, the man gathers enough grain to have food and sufficient profits to feast and relax for the rest of his life. Ironically, his life ends before he could even begin to enjoy what he gathered. The echo of Qoheleth’s teaching is unmistakable here. What the man gathered he could not enjoy, it went to someone else. He focused his life entirely on the pursuit of “vanity” and lost it as a result. God called the man a “fool” because he utterly misjudged what can bring lasting security and happiness. Telling this story Jesus warned his audience not to make the same mistake lest they become fools in pursuit of “vapor”, like the rich man did. Only what counts as the value in God’s eyes can bring lasting happiness and security.
Today’s liturgy exhorts believers to judge carefully what brings lasting security and happiness. Imitating Qoheleth, believers are called not to uncritically accept the various values and practices commonly acknowledged by society as paths to lasting success. Paul called the Colossians to stay far from the shadows of their former life of vanity and keep their new identity as the citizens of the heavenly world always before their eyes. Jesus warned his followers against the folly of relying on possessions for lasting security and happiness. The “vanity”, that is impermanence, of all that can be achieved in this world, is, therefore, a lesson in wisdom, a lesson that the Psalmist alluded to praying, “so teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
Listening to the Word of God
Water vapour does not remain in the sky forever. No matter how high it reaches, it eventually condenses to form visible clouds of rain droplets that fall to the earth. In the same way, no matter how high one ascends the ladder of fame, recognition or material wealth, like vapour, one will return to the dust of the earth.
No matter how many houses we build on this earth, we are all tenants. Think of it, we are tenants even in our bodies for our bodies are not ours to keep. Death is indeed a great leveler. It makes both the rich and poor to lie on the same bed of earth. No one carries anything with him. Let not the beautiful tiles that are put in the graves of the rich deceive anyone; it is only opium to ease the painful thought of death but it gives no comfort whatsoever to the dead.
In the parable of the Rich Fool, as narrated by Jesus, God says to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they are?” This fact of life prompted Qoheleth to say“…Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…”
Neither Qoheleth nor Jesus is against wealth creation. However, the inordinate desire for material things gives birth to insubordinate triplets – consumerism, materialism, and hedonism. Such an insatiable desire and self-feeding approach to life soon degenerate into greed.
There is a saying that if you want to save a greedy man from drowning, do not tell him, “give me your hand” for he will never give it to you. Tell him, “take my hand” and he will quickly stretch out his hand and take hold of yours. The only verb that greedy persons know is “take”. Even if they appear to give you something, it is only a bait to take from you.
At the heart of greediness is a deep-seated feeling of insecurity. The fear of not having enough in the future has lured many to pursue a path of self-destruction. In pursuit of fleeting wealth, there are people who have lost touch with their spouses and children and in the process strangled love. Some too have chosen to debase their bodies in exchange for some few coins for their hole-ridden money purse. In a bid to secure the future, some lose the present, and when the future finally becomes present, they find themselves buried in their past.
Whether subtle or glaring, greed does not add value to life; rather, it leaves one stale and lifeless. There is a common proverb among quite a number of tribes in Ghana which says: “stagnant water kills but running water gives life”, meaning it is in giving, and not hoarding, that we find life. Observe that greedy people are generally not happy. In spite of all their hoarding, they carry the burden of a somber look. Jesus is the surest and most reliable security one can ever have. He is the solid rock on which a happy and lasting life can be built.
“Stagnant water kills but running water gives life.”
I examine my desire and pursuits that govern my daily life. Are any of them vain in the sense in which Qoheleth used this word?
Do I desire to receive more than giving? Have I hoarded shoes, clothing or any other material things that I do not really need?
Response to God
I turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in prayer; I ask him to take charge of my future and be my security every moment of life’s journey.
Response to your World
I will pay special attention to avoiding vanity and pride in my words and actions.
In our group, we bring together all the things that we really do not need and donate them to those who are really in need.
Eternal Father, you have given me a heart that is restless until it rests in you. Deliver me from those desires of mine that seek to enslave me. Secure my boat with the safest anchor, your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.