“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher! …All is vanity. …I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
And yet, I doubt if we are scandalized or put off by this – this skepticism of ‘the Teacher,’ or as Martin Luther called Ecclesiastes, “the Preacher.’ We are not fazed, for we are Chicagoans! We are a city of the big shoulders, a hardy breed. We are the windy city, and we laugh at the cold and snow of winter, and the heat and humidity of summer. We have endured mobsters and gangs, and, 2 Daley administrations. We live in condo’s by the El tracks, and we look forward to cheering on the Cubs again next year! Our favorite disciple is Thomas. Cynicism is just part of who we are!
There is no other book of the bible like Ecclesiastes, with its doubting and dour message. And it’s no coincidence that in our entire 3 year lectionary of worship readings, this is the sole passage we’ll hear from Ecclesiastes – unless you’ve been to a New Year’s Day service, or to a funeral lately, and heard the reading from chapter 3: “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”
Throughout its twelve chapters, The Teacher-Preacher, continues to return to this theme of “vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” detailing the sense of skepticism and meaninglessness he finds in, work, law and order, intellect, and pretty much everything else, that any of us, would expect to provide, joy and meaning, and rewards, in our lives.
The word, Vanity, may not quite capture the true meaning The Teacher was after. Vanity, or Hevel in Hebrew, really means, a “breath”, a “vapor,” or a “puff of air.” All is transitory, we’re unable to grasp it! The Preacher is a hard nosed realist, a pragmatic theologian – from the Windy City – and is not going to be taken in by any Pollyannaish fancies that paste over the truth. But neither is the Teacher an Epicurean or Hedonist, like so many Romans of his day, or like the famous poet, Horace, from whom we get, “carpe diem – seize the day,” though we tend to forget what comes after that: “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next.” Horace, and his crowd, were cynical that there was anything more to this life; we should scale back our expectations; we should take pleasure in what we have, and face the fact that death is the end. ‘Seize the day’ for them meant mostly to pursue those things which avoided pain, fly under the radar, be satisfied with whatever simple things you can find, don’t feel guilty for taking it, or that your neighbor goes with out, because that’s all there is to life.
But that’s not the conclusion the Teacher in Ecclesiastes comes to, despite his cynical nature of the vanity of all things. The Teacher is not despairing of life itself, but in the human activity that cannot be counted on to save us. In this, he reminds me of Martin Luther, who worked hard to please God and to justify himself, but realized that all our works are hevel, a puff of air, that can not glorify God. And only at the end of his rope, when he let go of that pursuit, did he discover the grace of God in Christ Jesus. And this opened a whole new door for him to find hope, and the courage to live. So too, the Teacher, finds human striving, a vaporous, shallow, puff of air. The toiling we do is gone before you know it. And the gift of life from God, is all we have.
After Luther’s insight and transformation, he developed a teaching that helped shape and transform the Reformation for centuries. At a time when there was not much of a middle class to speak of, but mostly either rich or poor, he taught that God calls each of us to have more than a job, more than a toiling at meaningless work just to put food on the table, but God calls us to have a ‘vocation,’ that which we were created to do, that satisfies our talents, that we might play a part in society that edifies and builds it up.
Are you stuck in a job you hate? Do you feel you are toiling endlessly for nothing, but even more afraid of losing the paycheck? Some would say that in this economy it is not the right time to find the “vocation” or job you love. But I have found that for those who have already lost their jobs, in this Great Recession, it may just be the perfect opportunity to ask the question, what does God want me to do? What is my calling? What is my true vocation? Some are able to, perhaps with the help of family or friends’, to pursue that new vocation or job that you’ve always thought about, or to go back to school, or to start up a new business, or to at least volunteer at the place that gives meaning, and perhaps even brings joy and satisfaction.
What about you? What gives you meaning in the workplace or home? Let’s take a minute for ‘talk-time’ and discuss this. Are you stuck in a job you hate – do you have that, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” feeling, or have you found the job you love? Are you laid off and asking what God is calling you to, what your vocation is? Discuss for one minute each, then I’ll end us with a final thought.
In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Fool from the gospel, the rich fool is only concerned about his own welfare, bottling up the bounteous grace God blessed him with, for some fictitious, not so secure, future, in which his overflowing barns will be his salvation, all for himself. And then he puts his feet up so that he can, “eat, drink, and be merry,” thinking he has the world by the tail!
In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, also advocates “eat, drink, and enjoy,” but in exactly the inverse way. The Teacher is not advocating hedonism, but is turning everything over to God, taking a leap of faith, knowing that our striving and toiling cannot justify a life of leisure like the Rich Fool thinks he deserves. The Teacher is advocating a coming to the eschatological banqueting table of Jesus! A realist-sharing, here and now, an enacting of the gracious heavenly gift of salvation, and the realm of God, as we do every week at the communion table. “I know that there is nothing better for [those who toil],” says the Teacher, “than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; [for] moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil, [everything they work at and do]. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him,” says The Teacher.
To eat and drink and take pleasure in all our toil, and work, is easier said than done. But, it is the only way to do our work that gives meaning, our ‘vocation’ and calling that can begin to reveal a glimpse of salvation. Here is where the Teacher, the cynic-realist, plants his faith, and plants it firmly.