Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C



Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Response: Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13; Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

The origin of our first reading is the Book of Ecclesiastes. It should not be confused with the name of another book, which in older Bibles is known as Ecclesiasticus. In more recently translated Bibles, the latter is called Sirach. It is named after its author — Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira (Sirach). Back to Ecclesiastes. Who was the author? His proper name is unknown. In the title of the Greek version, he calls himself Ecclesiastes, in Hebrew “Quoheleth.” Same meaning, which indicates his relationship to an assembly. It is sometimes translated as preacher or speaker in an assembly. The Greek noun ekklesia in the New Testament is translated as church. Since all these words bear a feminine connotation, we could be daring and call the author Church Lady like the long-ago character played by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. That will not work because, in the title, he calls himself son – when, out of courtesy – or as we say today, hype – he attributes his book to King Solomon, who died in 922 B.C. But “Dead men don’t tell tales,” and the book is generally thought to be composed in the third century B.C.

The author is more philosopher than preacher. A preacher proclaims. A philosopher ponders. Quoheleth is a believer in God, though a skeptic in many things. That is clear from the opening line, “Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity!” The Hebrew or Greek words translated as vanity do not so much mean pride, but rather emptiness, vapor, foolishness, idleness, meaninglessness. After setting that tone in the opening line, our reading skips to chapter two. Quoheleth laments about a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, yet must leave what he has acquired to someone who has not worked for it. As if that were not enough to induce depression, it only gets worse as he asks, “What profit comes to a man from all the work and anxiousness with which he has labored under the sun?” And still worse, “All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation. At night his mind is restless. That too is emptiness!” What can we tell this poor man? Get a life, Quoheleth! Try cracking your face with an occasional smile! Why does the liturgy give us this sad commentary on humanity? The same theme is found in today’s gospel.

Psalm 90 responds in a similar tone, lamenting puny humanity. Examples:

“You turn us back to dust.”

“You make an end of them in their sleep.”

Our lives are “like the changing grass . . ., by evening it wilts and fades.”

To rescue us from the depression potentially induced by the first reading, there are also positive thoughts in our psalm. There is a plea for wisdom of heart and a petition to fill us with kindness at daybreak, “that we may shout for joy . . . all the time.” (Tell that to Quoheleth!) Quoheleth considered industriousness as emptiness. Not so our psalmist. He shouts to a gracious God, “Proper the work of our hands for us! Prosper the work of our hands!”

The reading from Colossians continues a theme we encountered in last Sunday’s second reading — that, through our baptism, we participated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, with him we are already in a position of power — seated at the right hand of God. So what is to be done? “Put to death . . . immorality, impurity . . ., evil desire, and greed,” which the author interestingly calls “idolatry,” thus connecting us with the greed of the man in today’s gospel reading. “Stop lying to one another.” He attacks divisions among Christians based on race, customs, social condition. Among Christians, it does not matter if one is Greek or Jew; circumcised or not; slave or free; or even the most savage barbarians in memory — the Scythians. Once they become Christians, all are equal. “Christ is all in all.”

Today’s gospel reading confronts a problem that most families eventually face — the disposal of possessions after the death of parents. Too often, the result is a mix of greed, dissatisfaction, jealousy – even long-term hatred. In our gospel, a man shouts to Jesus from a crowd, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” In the Bible, we first meet the struggle over inheritance, greed, manipulation and the ensuing hatred in Genesis 27. The man’s brother may have been the first-born male in the family. Among other privileges, the first-born son received a double portion of the inheritance. (See Deuteronomy 21:17). Genesis and Deuteronomy convince us that the problem has been with the human race for millennia. Jesus is smarter than many too-eager executors of a will. He responds, “Who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” As the crowd awaited further instruction from Jesus, he gave sound advice. “Take care against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Sirach 14:9 gives this advice to young men, “The eye of the greedy man is not content with his share. Greed shrivels the soul.”

Jesus the Teacher knows that a story is one of the best ways to convey a lesson. He adds a parable. A rich man had such a bountiful harvest that he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. That does not seem too abnormal for a wise farmer, except perhaps he should have kept his barns and added one big barn. So the man says to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years. Rest, eat, drink, be happy!” Sounds like an earned retirement. So what is the problem? We know that Luke, who brings this story to us, was no capitalist. His problem with wealth was not that of having wealth. For Luke, wealth is a gift from God, which God intends to be shared with the poor. The fault of the man in the parable: he was self-centered entirely, as indicated by his overuse of the pronoun “I.” There is no word of sharing, unlike the story of the very wealthy Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. The ultimate giver of wealth has his eyes on the situation, and says, “You fool, this night you will die, and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” A final word of satire from Quoheleth in Ecclesiastes 2:26, “A sinner’s job is to gather and store up for someone other, one who is pleasing to God.”