No more than a single breath in human history

Peter Seal, 31 July 2016

Ecclesiastes 1: 2, 12–14; 2: 18–23; Luke 12: 13–21

Our two biblical readings have a connected theme; let me try and explain. The book of Ecclesiastes begins with the words, ‘Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ The English word ‘vanity’ here suggests the emptiness and futility of everything in life. This has often led people to read this biblical book as a long unpacking of the basic observation that we live and die in vain – that there is no point to our human existence, that all our efforts are futile and worth nothing. We heard from our reading: ‘What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?’

But the Hebrew word translated here as ‘vanity’, hebel, means something more like ‘steam that rises in a bathroom’ or ‘the mist that evaporates at sunrise’. Understood in this way, the book of Ecclesiastes begins with a plain statement of fact: that a human life is nothing more than a breath.

Ecclesiastes looks at life realistically, if slightly abruptly. Within the scope of human history, any individual life is but a brief interval – an interval full, of course, of the potential for delight and pleasure. But also an interval in which our human pretensions to, for example, worth, grandeur and importance are hebel – that is, they’re like a fleeting mist that passes with the dawn.

And then, in today’s gospel reading, we’re given an example of something our Lord frequently does. A situation presents itself, this time through a seemingly simple request: ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’. But Jesus looks behind the request to something deeper. He exposes the reality of which the request is only a symptom.

Merely making a decision – being a referee between two brothers – would solve the immediate issue but leave the problem intact. Our Lord refuses the request but gives the warning, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed’. Now comes a story that hammers home the warning. Notice that our Lord is not painting the portrait of an evil man, merely a stupid one!

The land of a rich man produced abundantly.

No problem here. Someone needs to work the land to advantage. The man says:

What should I do, for I have no place for my crops? I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones.

No problem here either; just good planning. But at this point the problem begins. This is where the rich man becomes a foolish man.

I will say to my soul – soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.

Again, our Lord is not saying that it is bad to relax, eat, drink and be merry. Jesus does suggest, however, that it is exceedingly foolish to base our whole life on what we have accumulated, on what we possess. We need another kind of barn for another kind of produce. After we have asked, ‘How much do I have?’ we need to pose a different question. We need to ask, ‘Who am I really? What have I got that will supply what I need when I face the sometimes terrifying realities of life, including death?’

We heard, ‘This very night your life is being demanded of you’. So the question becomes, how do I become not merely rich – with which there is nothing wrong – but ‘rich towards God’? The moral of the parable is this: be on your guard against all kinds of greed.

So, we have two Bible passages with a similar message – for us and for our world today: all our striving, all our hard work, will at the end of our days appear no more than a single breath in human history. To strive for wealth and a position in life eventually means nothing. What matters most, and what we’re both challenged and encouraged to do, is to become rich in the eyes of God. There are no easy answers as to what this might mean, or look like; but I have a sense that, in our heart of hearts, we each know what matters most, and what we should be striving for.

What we’re both challenged and encouraged to do is to become rich in the eyes of God.

It may be that a news story of earlier this week may help shed a little light. The event I’m thinking of is the gruesome murder of the 85-year-old French priest as he said Mass in a parish church in Normandy. That a priest should be killed so brutally in church has sent shock waves through Europe.

That Father Jacques Hamel would have died defenceless, within sight of a crucifix, makes his murder all the more poignant and painful to contemplate. He paid the highest price that his vocation demands. It’s not that Father Jacques was more important because he was a priest – that’s nonsense. God loves, and values, everyone equally; yes, even the murderer who wielded the knife.

I think what is shocking, especially for us Christian people, is what Father Jacques represented. As a priest, who like every human being was also a sinner, he represented by his life the search to be ‘rich in the sight of God’. As a celibate Catholic priest he had given up the possibility of marriage and family life in order to better commit himself to the service of his parishioners.

Part of the clue as to what it might mean to be rich in the sight of God is to ask, ‘What am I prepared to give up? What am I prepared to sacrifice in order to better serve other people; in order to be more caring; in order to reach out to the poor?’

The whole theme of commitment and sacrifice is not popular in our western culture And yet that conscious decision, to limit our own desires and aspirations, is ultimately liberating. A new, and renewed, conscious decision of Christian commitment and sacrifice may well help us to resist greed, and so many other temptations that can be a trap.

May God by his grace help each of us to become rich in the sight of God.