The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C)
4 August 2019
O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church, and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiastes 1:12-14, 2:18-23
Our lesson from Hebrew Scripture today is a tough one. The “Preacher [having] been king over Israel in Jerusalem” concludes, “What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest.” Imagine if this preacher shared such a conclusion with you? I guess you know me better than that. It’s not usually my message; and yet, that preacher is getting at something essential about our tortured relationship with objects and possessions, and with the value of our labour. Why do we work so hard? Why do we love stuff? And want more of it?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes had everything. By his own account, “I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.” He was successful like many people we see today right here in our own city. We may know some personally and we certainly have been reading about them in the news. He tried living according to that terrible saying, “the one with the most toys wins.” And this, he concludes at length, is vanity.
God made the earth and pronounced it good. God made us in the divine image and likeness and gave us the gift of the use of our bodies to labour in the garden made for us. Creation itself, and we as part of it, are part of the divine purpose, of the realisation of the Kingdom of God. Life, therefore, is connected with the very purpose of creation and not just about amassing as much stuff as possible. It is about living meaningfully. It is about what we do with our possessions, the gifts we have been given, the fruits of our labours, and, most importantly, with our Life (our Soul), which is itself a gift from God. Labour and possessions without meaning are vanity.
This is a theme often preached. It is a theme, perhaps, from the stock of clichés every preacher, every good preacher at least, seeks to avoid. But in this moment in the life of our world, especially in the life of our country when our leaders seem to be the most vile perpetrators of the notion that the meaning of life consists in the amassing of as much as possible for ourselves, it is a theme that needs proclaiming “upon the housetops.” And I don’t care who hears it. Jesus knew that such speech is dangerous and exhorts us to do it anyway.
This is how Jesus began the discourse that leads us into today’s Gospel. Pressed on all sides by the crowd, Jesus addressed the disciples to give them a warning: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops” (12:1-3). The stakes are heightened, the atmosphere charged with excitement. Everything that the disciples say might be held against them and people are listening on all sides.1 Jesus might just as well have told them, as I used to tell my students and now remind the staff, not to put anything in an email they wouldn’t want to see the next day on the front page of the New York Times. This isn’t just paranoia gripping Jesus. We have seen how Jesus is constantly put to the test and we who know the whole story know the consequences of Jesus’ insistence upon continuing his teaching. Indeed, Jesus and the apostles face “persecution, trials, and the threat of death.”2 Jesus tells his friends not to fear what lies ahead. Exhorts them to keep on persevering with him in preaching the Kingdom. Jesus lived in dangerous times and preached a counter-cultural message that privileges those who are willing to put the work of the Kingdom of God first, who put the works of neighbour love ahead of narrow self interest.
So, while thus addressing his disciples in the midst of this great crowd, one of the latter comes to Jesus as a rabbi and asks him to settle a family dispute. I think we have to assume that this interlocutor heard nothing of Jesus’ address to his friends, creating a naturalistic setting for the interruption and change of subject. It also condemns the questioner for not paying attention to that which is truly important, not understanding that Jesus isn’t just another lawyer or rabbi, but rather the Son of man engaged in the work of preaching the Kingdom of God.
This request made to Jesus, “bid my brother divide the inheritance with me,” affords the opportunity for Jesus to teach the disciples and the larger crowd of the vanity of amassing possessions and not using them, hiding them away. He tells them the story of a man who made the choice to amass wealth for the express purpose of allowing him to “take [his] ease, eat, drink, be merry” and who never even had the chance to reap the rewards of this selfish choice.
Jesus is making it clear that the choices we make in the use of our labour and disposition of our possessions are as high-stakes as anything we face. He uses the notion of soul (psyche in Greek and, perhaps, translated as Life with a capital “L”) to make a contrast with possessions. In the tale, the man rhetorically consults his Soul, that is to say his larger life, as to what he should do. He tragically comes down on the side of choosing pleasure without meaning; and then, suddenly, that very soul is demanded by God and his work is, well, vanity. The man thought he was rich because he had lots of possessions; he thought that the meaning of life consisted in having. But even having does not grant Life, and in death his possessions were scattered.
One commentator has pointed out that Luke’s narrative shows “how profoundly he has grasped the symbolic function of possessions in human existence. It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous. Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it .... Only the removal of fear by the persuasion that life [Life/Soul] is a gift given by the source of all reality can generate the spiritual freedom that is symbolised by the generous disposition of possessions.”3 We feel the need to amass, possess, guard, keep; but for what? If it only out of fear or selfishness that we treasure our lives, labour, and possessions, then the preacher from Ecclesiastes is right, and “it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” If, however, our labour and the use of our possessions are oriented to the ends of advancing the work of the Kingdom of God, then far from being a vain enterprise with dead things, it becomes our highest calling.
We are called to use everything we are and everything we have in the service of advancing the works of love and proclaiming this from the housetops, both in word and in deed. It is dangerous and difficult work, yes, but worth the price, for life and labour with meaning is how our purpose fits in with the divine purpose, and as I reminded us last week when talking about the Lord’s Prayer, the work before us, while at times frustrating and unfruitful, is not beyond our abilities. It is straight forward. It is something that each and every one of us is capable of carrying out without losing sight of the things that matter. We can do it and what we do shall not be in vain.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Feria, 2 August 2019
2Johnson 1991, 196.
3Johnson 1991, 201.
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume