18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Vanity of Vanities)

Today we hear from the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the only Sunday of our 3-year cycle that we hear from this book. The Hebrew name for this book is Koheleth, a Hebrew word that means “one who gathers or assembles”. The Greek translation of Koheleth is Ecclesiastes, and it’s from that word that we have the word ecclesia or its Germanic equivalent church, meaning “assembly” or “gathering”.

The book begins with the words: “The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem”. Long standing tradition holds that this book is possibly written by, or more likely, about Solomon, David’s son and king of Jerusalem. It’s believed to be about him, at the end of his days, asking questions about life and reflecting on how he has lived.

In the early part of his life, Solomon is said to have been a virtuous and wise man, a king. He brought peace to the people of Israel and built the Temple in Jerusalem. It started off well but went downhill. He ended up being led astray and making horrible decisions, becoming a man of many gods and many wives, a man who sought wealth and his own glory. He never recovered.

 Jesus’ parable in the Gospel seems to speak of Solomon, even if he doesn’t refer to him by name: a rich man, who had so much that he didn’t know how to account for it all, aspiring only to rest, eat, drink and be merry. And as the end of the parable, the man proved to be rich, but not in what matters to God.

In Ecclesiastes he looks back on his life, wondering what happened. It’s clear that he feels far from God; that God is distant and removed. He laments that there’s little security in life, and that the world is harsh. He also makes it clear that death is not only a dreaded end, but inevitable.

Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” he declares. Vanity is a translation of the Hebrew word hevel, and in this context refers to something like breath or wind: something that is there, one moment, and simply dissipates right before us….suddenly gone…..like life. Qoheleth, at the end of his life, is a man of little cheer, exploring the questions that lie in every human heart.

I suspect some of us can relate. Too many of us busy ourselves and fill our lives with so much of what we’re convinced is important and even necessary: things to sate our various appetites, giving ourselves over to shallow relationships that we tell ourselves make us feel loved and needed. There’s no shortage of it all. The only thing in short supply is time.

Who doesn’t, in the quiet moments, wish that things were a little simpler, quieter, and that we could catch up? But also, who of us really feels fulfilled and satisfied, that all our needs and desires are met? Who of us is content that we’re investing ourselves adequately in our relationships and in turn, being loved as we want? There’s always more beyond our grasp, and we tell ourselves that if we can get that elusive ‘next thing’, that it will satisfy what’s lacking. And yet it proves not to be true. There’s always more and we remain hungry. In fact, for too many of us, this restless pursuit leaves us with a fundamental unhappiness, emptiness, and too often, despair. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”

An anonymous author once wrote:

First I was dying to finish high school and start college.

And then I was dying to finish college and start working.

And then I was dying for my children to grow old enough for school, so I could return to work.

And then I was dying to retire.

And I am dying….and suddenly I realize

I forgot to live.

So how do we avoid coming to such an end? I guess the way I see it, ultimately, God has entrusted each of us with just a few things that are important above all others. Aside from our souls and our health, there’s our relationship with Him, our families and a few truly trusted friends. Those are the things that make us rich in what matters to God. Yes, life demands other responsibilities from us—paying bills, going to work, staying caught up on social media and fantasy football—but they’re not of primary importance, despite what we might be made to believe.

What—or perhaps better, who—is it, the two or three things, that are most important in your life? What/who makes you rich in what matters to God? At the end of our fragile and unpredictable lives, if we are to look back, like Qoheleth/Solomon, I suspect we’ll either feel satisfaction or emptiness, to the degree we either nurture or neglect these blessings. In this Mass, this act of thanksgiving, let us acknowledge in our hearts and give thanks to God for the what/who that makes us truly rich.