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The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Rich Fool 

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Alright, 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...

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