Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is a sort of monologue spoken by Qoheleth, the Preacher or Teacher. His ideas are notoriously confusing and contradictory. He views the world as changeless and says that we are unable to comprehend its workings. Injustice, he says, is rampant and the future unpredictable; and this is how God has designed it. What can we do about it? Not much; all our efforts are vanity, no better than chasing after the wind. So, he concludes later on, we might as well simply enjoy what we have. Like the farmer in today’s Gospel, we should relax, eat, drink and be merry.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. The word translated vanity is literally a breath of wind. So vanity here doesn’t mean vain, like preening ourselves in front of a mirror. It’s more like fleeting uselessness. And I suspect that for many of us there’ve been times in our lives when we ourselves have felt that all is empty and meaningless, vanity of vanities.
But in the Epistle St Paul says we’re above this sort of thing; it needn’t concern us. We have been raised with Christ; so we should seek the things that are above, not the things on the earth. We should be otherworldly. Well, that’s questionable advice: we’ve probably all come across people who are so otherworldly that they’re no earthly use. But we get the point. And Jesus makes it very plain in today’s Gospel. “Take care,” he said. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
Of course, we know that: we’d all subscribe to that view. Yet the standards of the world can so easily prevail because they are so prevalent. Advertising pressurises us to think that possessions are primary; as does the glamorisation of the rich. And aren’t we all tempted to assess the value of others according to the value of their possessions, their house, or houses, their car, or cars, and so on?
The acquisition of wealth and the desire for that has been, I think, on balance a good thing. Together with the drive to lessen the drudgery of life, it’s that which has brought us from the Stone Age to where we are today. Though of course the bad aspect of that is that alongside it has come the desire for domination of others and sheer greed.
There are different levels of greed. There’s the greed of the child, or the adult, reaching out for the biggest slice of cake. Then there’s bankers’ greed and politicians’ greed, and I’m not so much thinking of those fiddling expenses but of those, like Mugabe, fiddling elections.
But, “Take care,” said Jesus. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Remember that slogan: one man’s greed is another man’s need. But it’s not only a matter of taking away from someone something that he or she would like or actually needs. St Paul in the Epistle lists earthly things – fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed; and then he adds, which is idolatry. Greed is idolatry.
Idolatry is making something or somebody more important than God. An idol is something or somebody which or whom you worship. And possessions can indeed become idols. We once had some neighbours - I think we were the only local people they visited and who visited them, whose possessions were considerable, seriously considerable, for example, Chippendale chairs in the kitchen, a jewellery case which had belonged to Marie Antoinette. They never went away: they couldn’t risk leaving the house empty in spite of sophisticated burglar alarms. They were possessed by their possessions. Sad.
Life is more than possessions. You can’t take it with you when you go, and I remember someone once saying to me, there’re no pockets in a shroud.
When I was thinking of what to say today, I suddenly thought of a man I knew 50 years ago, though I’ve forgotten his name. I first met him in the Bristol Royal Infirmary when he was having not his first but his second leg amputated, and I remember well that he said, “You know, I’m so lucky: I’ve never had a day’s illness in my life.” Later I used to visit him at home every now and then. He and his wife – they were a loving couple - had a council flat with the very minimum of possessions. They did have a tiny TV, and he did enjoy his Woodbines. He didn’t drink, but he was always legless! And he spent all day sitting in his basic wheelchair with his short stumps not reaching beyond the seat. He never grumbled, but just the reverse, he was always so thankful for all that he had. It was a treat to visit him: his possessions were few, but his life was rich.
Contrast the rich farmer in Jesus’ story. I think he must have been one of those farmers getting a huge EU subsidy. I used t to think those subsidies went to struggling hill farmers, but apparently the main beneficiaries are the big land-owning farmers, the arable barons. Jesus’ farmer was in that category. He needed bigger and better barns, and proudly he said to himself, “The future’s assured, and it’s pretty sumptuous.” But, “Bad luck,” said God, “this very night your life will end. So who will get all your possessions now? You certainly can’t take it with you when you go.” And Jesus adds, “That’s what it’s like for those who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich towards God.”
That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it: rich towards God? This chapter in St Luke’s Gospel goes on to include that wonderful saying of Jesus: “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not; they spin not; and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Then he continues, and this is the hard bit, the real challenge: “Sell you possessions and give to the poor. Provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out with never failing treasure in heaven, where no thief can get near it, and no moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So there’s one way to build up a healthy balance in the Bank of Heaven Unlimited. Every pound we give to the poor or to good causes is added to that balance, and helps to make us rich towards God, and, I would say, live happier lives.
There aren’t many of us who have enough faith to sell all our possessions and give to the poor. And I suppose if we did, we’d then become poor ourselves and dependant on the charity of others. And of course we should think of the duty of, if it’s possible, financing future care in case we become incapable of looking after ourselves. And while it’s far from the most important thing, it would be pleasing and tangible evidence of our love to leave at least something for our children.
When I was working, very occasionally I used to suggest to the reader at the Parish Communion that perhaps it would be better after a particular reading not to say, “This is the word of the Lord.” And I remember one of them at the end of his reading saying, “Ken says, this is not the word of the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.”
Well, what about today’s reading from Ecclesiastes? As I said earlier, it expresses a feeling that probably most of us have experienced every now and then: What’s the point of it all? What the hell? Who cares? But our even limited understanding of God and his purposes leads us far, far away from saying, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”
No, God’s desire is that we have a rich life, not rich in the possessions of this world, but rich in helpfulness and generosity towards others and especially those in need. And we ought to add that if we are not in a position to be generous or to actively help others, then we should be rich in the graciousness of receiving help.
Thankfully God has given to us not a vain life, not an empty life, but a rich life, rich in meaning, rich in purpose. So let us in return, all of us, in Jesus’ words be rich towards God.