The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
4 August AD 2019
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Ecclesiastes begins with that famous line, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” then throughout the rest of the book it talks about how just about everything in life is a striving after vanity. That word, in fact, appears thirty-seven times in Ecclesiastes, and only four more times in the rest of the Bible. The voice of Carly Simon always pops into my head whenever I read from it—“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” And because in popular understanding, the definition of vanity is pretty much restricted to the way Carly uses it in her song, i.e. that somebody has a pretty high opinion of themselves, we don’t usually think about the broader meaning of that word. Vanity means empty, useless, devoid of any substance or value. That’s how the Teacher means it in Ecclesiasties. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, Emptiness of emptinesses, futility of futilities. Of course personal vanity, as in the song, is also empty. The vain person spends a lot of time in front of the mirror, or thinks he’s better than others, or is more concerned for his own welfare than for others, all of which are marks of a shallow, uncaring person.
The Teacher—that’s how he identifies himself in the first two verses, and also as the kingly son of David, i.e. Solomon—speaks of everything in this life as being empty, and every pursuit as “a chasing after wind.” So he comes across as a real downer. But the book ends with an admonition, most likely written by somebody else, and which is almost as famous as the opening verses:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13-14 ESV)
It offers a glimmer of hope at the end of an otherwise depressing book. And the Church has always thought that that glimmer is prophetic, and that the hope it points to is Jesus, who is anything but vain, and whose promises are not empty at all. So let’s take a look at today’s other two readings in light of the first one.
Jesus is prompted to tell the parable of the rich farmer by a plea from somebody in the crowd for help in settling an inheritance dispute. “I wasn’t sent here to arbitrate those kinds of squabbles,” he said. Jesus isn’t concerned with property issues, not personal, nor even on the national scale, which is what a lot of God’s people back then were hoping would be a major concern of the Messiah. He’s not concerned with that stuff basically because all property is God’s in the first place, and all kingdoms will be absorbed, as the loud voices in heaven say in Revelation, into “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15). And when his kingdom comes in all its fullness, wills and deeds—and constitutions—will be worth nothing. So for Jesus to get involved in property disputes would have been contradictory to his Good News of the coming Kingdom.
What does concern Jesus in such matters is the hearts of the people caught up in those kinds of disputes, in any kind of dispute. Are they kindly disposed toward their neighbors or not? Are the two brothers willing to ruin their relationship over who inherits what? I bet some of you belong to families who have been touched by this kind of conflict. I do.
So Jesus tells this parable about the rich farmer who reaped an abundant harvest. “What do I do, since I don’t have enough storage space?” the farmer says to himself. Since it’s Jesus who’s telling the story, you know the right answer is that the farmer should have shared his surprise blessing with others. But of course he does exactly the opposite. “I’ll tear everything down and build it bigger,” he decides, “And I’ll say to my soul, Soul, you’ve got it made. You’ll never have to worry about another thing.” There’s the vanity coming out: the personal vanity, in that he thinks so much of himself that his main concern is looking out for Number One; and the vanity that the Teacher speaks of, the striving after wind that doesn’t take into account that maybe there are people in the world who aren’t as secure as yourself, who don’t have even a tiny fraction of what you have, and that just maybe you as a fellow creature bear some responsibility for those people. Or maybe it’s not food they lack, but justice. Either way, what are you going to do about it?
St Basil the Great (4th c.) said,
Don’t imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Make decisions regarding your property as though it belonged to another. Possessions give you pleasure for a little while, but then they’ll slip through your fingers and be gone, and you’ll be left to give a strict account of them. (Homilies on Wealth)
Even so, the man is showing worldly wisdom and prudence. It’s natural for farmers to want to store up their crops until they can get the best price for them. But in the heavenly economy, love of neighbor takes precedence over everything else, including the best price. But that very night the rich farmer’s soul was required of him.
That’s a very interesting way of saying that he died. The soul is such an integral part of us that we can’t live without it. But it’s also something we can’t hold on to when the time comes for it to leave the body. The ultimate lesson in trying to hold on to what belongs to you is that not even your own soul is yours to keep. Even you yourself, Paul says elsewhere, “are not your own… For you were bought with a price,” the price of Christ’s own life on the cross (1Cor 6:19-20). And the personal cost of that is to give ourselves completely to God by being joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. “For you have died,” Paul says today, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And the promise of the resurrection is that soul and body will eventually be reunited, and then stood before the judgment seat of Christ, where he will examine the condition of our hearts to see whether they were filled with love of God and neighbor, or only with love of self and all those things Paul warns against.
“If you’ve been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is…” where he has ascended and taken our humanity with him, and sat down with it “at the right hand of God.” The idea is to look at the world from that lofty perspective, and to understand what really belongs to whom. Then abandon that vanity that keeps us glued to ourselves, that leads us to hoard up what we think belongs to us, but really belongs to God, and get into stewardship mode where we’ll see clearly that what God has freely given to us needs to be freely shared by us among all God’s needy creatures.
The problem, says Bishop NT Wright, “is not living on earth, but living on earth’s terms” (Twelve Months of Sundays, ad loc.), which we do mindlessly in most cases, so as to suffer as little disruption in our daily lives as possible. It’s kind of like how, when you download a new app or register on a new website, and you’re supposed read through that mile-long list of terms and conditions, but instead we all just scroll right to the bottom and click “accept.” Our vocation as followers of Jesus is to live on earth on God’s terms. So the challenge is to stop mindlessly clicking “accept” on earth’s terms, and to embrace God’s terms instead. “Set your minds on things that are above,” Paul says, “not on things that are on earth… Put to death whatever in you is earthly.”
The things he goes on to list we tend to think of as being mostly of a sexual nature, but only the first one is explicitly sexual. “Impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” can include any number of things; but the terms themselves have to do with the condition of the heart, and can manifest themselves in all sorts of hateful actions against others, or self-centered actions that are harmful to oneself and others. Get rid of them all, Paul urges. “Rend your heart,” we hear the prophet Joel say every Ash Wednesday (Joel 2:13), tear it open before God so that he can take away all that destructive behavior and hatred, and give you a new one, one that’s ready to be poured out for your neighbor.
In that renewed heaven and earth that Jesus has established by his death and resurrection, there’s no room for ethnic, or national, or even property divisions, but only the one people of God whose lives are hidden with Christ and identified only in him, and in whom he is all, and is in all. Therefore having been raised with Christ, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is… [and] when Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” In the Name of…