GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
...so that’s the gospel for today.
Now let’s go back to Ecclesiastes. The Old Testament reading for today is an awesome compliment to the gospel because it’s one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. If you like Winnie the Pooh, Ecclesiastes is the Eeyore of the Old Testament. It’s the most depressing book. If you’re a melancholic soul like myself, this is your book. It is just so depressing; it’s so sad, but it’s beautiful in its melancholy. So I love Ecclesiastes, it’s a fantastic book. And in this case, the Old Testament reading for today gives us a section from the first two chapters; it gives us the opening verses of Ecclesiastes and then selects a few verses specifically on the vanity of earthly wealth. And you’ll easily figure out, once I read it, how this connects with the parable of the rich fool. So let’s just go through that together.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Then the lectionary skips all the way down to Ecclesiastes 2:21-23, which says this:
[S]ometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 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. This also is vanity.
Ok, very uplifting words there from the book of Ecclesiastes. So let’s just unpack them together. The first thing that’s absolutely essential to understand when it comes to this first reading is the meaning of the word “vanity.” Now this is the traditional translation of the opening lines of the book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities…everything is vanity.” People have probably heard that before. The problem with that translation is that in English, the noun “vanity” has come to be used more with reference to pride or a disordered self-love; in other words, a person being vain. Like the famous song, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” I know you’ve heard that; I grew up in the 70’s listening to that on the radio. When we think of someone being vain, or if we think of vanity, we might think of Vanity Fair
, the famous novel, or the magazine that stole the title of that novel. So the idea of focusing on image, focusing on appearances, someone who’s self-absorbed, someone who’s prideful, someone who’s egotistical; that’s what we think of when we hear the word “vanity”. That’s not what Ecclesiastes is referring to; it’s not that kind of vanity. The English translation of the word vanity in Ecclesiastes is rooted in the terminology of doing something in vain, or doing something in a futile manner, or doing something in a way that isn’t going to be efficacious; it’s “in vain’.” That’s the meaning of this term. So you can see this in the Hebrew behind it. The Hebrew word translated vanity here is hebel.
And I’ll give you a parallel from the Book of Job that will give you an idea of what this means. The word hebel
is literally defined as a vapor, a mist or a breath; like a “breath of the lungs”. So in Job 7:16, Job says:
I loathe my life; I would not live for ever. Let me alone, for my days are [hebel
] a breath.
So what is Job saying when he says that his “days are a breath” (or you could translate it, “my days are vanity”)? He’s talking about the fleeting nature of his life, about the fact that there’s a sense in which, because his life is so short, all that he does is vanity. It’s all a passing. It’s all a breath or a mist or a vapor. It’s a passing thing. So when Ecclesiastes begins by saying, “hebel of hebel, all is hebel”,
what it means is that everything in this world is passing. It’s all, in a sense, done in vain because it’s so fleeting, it’s so ephemeral. With that prelude in mind, what Ecclesiastes goes on to do in the first couple of chapters is give examples of just how ephemeral, just how fleeting, and just how passing all of the good things of this world that people chase after really are. So whether it’s the pleasures of the flesh, the pleasures of food and drink, the pleasure of wealth; all these things which traditionally Solomon is associated with (because the book is traditionally associated with and attributed to Solomon), all of that earthly good is passing. It’s all hebel.
It’s all just a breath. And so the lectionary, what is does is it skips down to verse 21, where Ecclesiastes is giving an example of how fleeting and how vain earthly labor and earthly wealth is.
So with that background in mind, you can look at the verses again. It basically describes the fact that when a person has worked to acquire wisdom and knowledge and skill, he’s going to leave everything that he acquires on the basis of that skill to someone who didn’t work for it. It says “this also is hebel
and a great evil.” So he’s talking about the fact that a person can spend their whole life, in our times as in antiquity, accruing wealth and then the second they die, it’s going to go to someone else who didn’t do a thing to earn it. Whether it is that person’s children, or the state, or the government (through taxation or whatever it might be), all of it is left behind. “You can’t take it with you” is the famous proverb there. Now what it’s getting at then is, what’s the point!? That’s what Ecclesiastes is doing. What’s the point then. If everything that I’ve worked for and all that I possess is going to be left to someone who didn’t do a thing to earn it; then isn’t it just in vain? “What has a man for all the toil and strain that would put you towards beneath the sun? All his days are for the pain and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his mind does not rest.” So if you read the fuller context of Ecclesiastes 2, you’ll see that, in particular, what the book is highlighting is the anxiety that comes with wealth. The book will talk about the fact that the poor man, the laborer, the day laborer, when he’s done with his hard day’s work, he just sleeps like a log. He sleeps a peaceful and restful sleep. But the rich man, the wealthy man, the wise man who has put so much energy and effort into acquiring all these possessions, his possessions begin to (in a sense) possess him, and he can’t even get a goodnight’s sleep. He can’t even rest at night because the anxiety that comes with ownership robs him of the most simple pleasures of life: namely, a goodnight’s sleep, a goodnight’s rest. “This too is hebel
Ecclesiastes is saying. This anxiety over earthly possessions is also in vain. It’s also a breath, a mist, a vanity, because the moment you die it’s all gone, and you can’t take it with you and it’s going to belong to someone else. So you can see here the parallel very clear between the rich man who thinks that once he has all of these possessions, he’s now safe and he can just eat and drink and be merry and all will be well (in the gospel parable that Jesus uses), and then the rich man in the book of Ecclesiastes who devotes everything to this vain pursuit of acquiring all this wealth that’s not going to be his the second he passes away. It’s all fleeting, it’s all passing, it’s all vanity.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So with that in mind, go back to the beginning. What Paul's saying to the Colossians is,
If then you have been raised with Christ,
by which he doesn't mean the final resurrection, he means the sacramental resurrection that takes place in baptism. So if you've been raised with Christ through baptism, then you need to
seek the things that are above, where Christ is,
In other words, live according to the ethos, the ethics, not of earthly city, but of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, the heavenly kingdom, 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.
Now, let me pause here. Notice this is really important. On the one hand, Paul has a kind of dualism between heaven and earth, right? But this isn't an escapism. He's not trying to say heaven good, earth bad, spirit good, body bad, as you might find in some kind of dualistic or Gnostic or Manichean errors later on in early Christianity. The reason we seek the things that are above is not because the earth isn't good. It is good. Genesis 1 says it's good. The reason we seek the things that are of heaven is not because the earth isn't good. It is good. God made it. But we seek the things of heaven and the things that are above because Christ is there.
Because Christ is raining in his glorified and resurrected body, where? Not on earth, but at the right hand of the Father, right? So Paul's trying to get the Colossians to (to coin a phrase) lift up their hearts to the invisible reality of the heaven and the heavenly city where they belong, because that's where their king is. Now, is he going to return? Yes, but right now he's seated at the right hand of the Father. So they have to understand that they don't live for this world anymore. They live for the world to come. And that's why he says
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
So when you were baptized, this is remarkable, you not only died to sin, you not only had your sins forgiven. You didn't just become a member of the local parish church in Colossae. Your actual life was caught up and united to the risen and exalted Christ so that your life is now hidden with Christ in God. You belong to that heavenly Jerusalem. That's where your true citizenship is. That's your destiny. That's your ultimate home.
[So w]hen Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Now he's pointing to the final resurrection at the time of the parousia. Now here's the key.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…
So here, Paul uses the language of mortification. We talk about mortification. Sometimes people will say, "I was mortified," meaning, "I was scared to death." But in the language of the spiritual tradition of the Church, mortification has to do with voluntarily putting to death aspects of our life that are either earthly or sinful or both. Here Paul lists sins. He doesn't just say avoid them. He doesn't just say, "Do your best to try to not do them," right? He says, "Kill them." Put to death in you, therefore, what?
Number one, immorality. The Greek word there is porneia
. So he's not just talking about cheating on your taxes. He's talking about sexual immorality. And in a first century Jewish context he would mean any sexual act outside of the marital covenant would be porneia: prostitution, adultery, homosexual acts, incest, anything outside of the marital covenant, that's porneia. So his first thing he has to tell these pagans at Colossae that they can't do is they can't live according to the sexual morays or sexual immorality of the pagan culture of their time.
Second, impurity. The Greek word here is akatharsia
. Now, there's debate about exactly what he means by that. In a Jewish context, the term impurity would frequently be used to refer to ritual impurities like in the Old Testament, right? Where a person might not wash at the time they're supposed to wash, or they might touch a corpse, or they might eat an impure food, right? But Paul can't be referring to that, because he's not talking to Jews, he's talking to Gentiles. So in a Gentile context, impurity, akatharsia
, a strong case can be made that he's referring there again to sexual immorality, particularly, as we might use the expression, dirty or perverted acts with the body would be unfitting. Not just sinful, but somehow perverted. So put to death, immorality, put to death impurity, put to death passion, evil desire, covetousness.
Covetousness, the Greek word pleonexia,
is a kind of envy that leads to the accumulation of possessions or wealth, right? It tends to be focused on the commandment "don't covet your neighbor's ox or his donkey or any of his possessions," okay? So covetousness, which he says is idolatry. It's actually the worship of a creature over the creator. On account of these, porneia
, perversity, impurity, evil desires, passion, covetousness, and idolatry, the wrath of God is coming. So Paul's making really clear here that these are grave sins. Objectively, these are grave sins and they will be punished by the wrath of God. So he's preparing the Colossians to recognize something that they wouldn't have recognized as Gentiles necessarily. Namely, that their human actions have eternal consequences, right?
So in a Gentile context, you could definitely... I mean, they had an idea of supernatural punishment. Like if you angered the gods, because you didn't perform sacrifices, that gods might punish you with a plague or with a famine or a war or something like that, right? But these would be temporal punishments for faults. Here, Paul's trying to get them to realize, no, there's going to be eternal punishment for certain sins. And he lists the problem. He begins always with porneia
. With Paul that is always the first one he's got to deal with because the Gentile cultures were so rampant with it. It was one of the first things that he had to get his converts to stop doing in order to change their lives and live lives in Christ.
But I added a verse too, because the list that he gives here, unfortunately when the lectionary skips these couple of verses in the middle, it leaves out a few of the vices that Paul lists. I thought it'd be helpful to mention them here.
anger, wrath, malice,
Malice is the desire to do ill to someone else.
So to lie about someone publicly to the destruction of their reputation is very grave sin. And also, note this,
and foul talk from your mouth.
So that last expression there is very interesting, aischrologia
, that word literally means like logia words, right? Aischrologia
is dirty words or foul talk, foul words, bad language. That's a looser translation…and also lying. Don't lie to each other. That’s your old way of life. The new way of life doesn't have any place for that.
And if you want an example of that, in particular the one on foul talk, because this is something that I've noticed that it's not always clear to me that readers in the New Testament walk away from it knowing that Paul and Jesus expect the disciples of Jesus to not use profanity and cursing, but Paul's really clear here. So for example, there's a use of the similar term in Aristotle. So in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
, he's discussing all kinds of ethical issues and one of the things he brings up is bad language. And this is what Aristotle says, if you want a context for what Paul might be referring tom Aristotle writes:
The well-bred man’s jesting differs from that of a vulgar man, and the joking of an educated man from that of an uneducated. One may see this even from the old and the
new comedies; to the authors of the former indecency of language (Greek aischrologia) was amusing
, to those of the latter innuendo is more so; and these differ in no small degree in respect of propriety.
So you notice there, Aristotle uses the term aischrologia
, the same word Paul uses here, to refer to the difference between newer comedies, which use more innuendo, subtle things than the foul language of the older comedies, the kind of raunchy language that was part of the older comedies. So you can see here, just Aristotle recognizing that profanity, bad language, dirty talk, we might say, dirty words, are part of Gentile culture. It's part of pop culture, the culture of these comedies, right? And Aristotle says that that actually shouldn't be part of the educated man's vocabulary. That's the basic thrust of the quotation here, but Paul is making that much stronger. He's saying, put all foul talk out of your mouth if you're in Christ. Don't walk according to the ways that you did when you were a Gentile. That has no place in your mouth anymore. For full access subscribe here >