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 Book of Ecclesiastes is a third century B.C. document attributed to King Solomon who died in 922 B.C. Go figure! There was a custom of ancient times to attribute a document to a historical person of importance. This custom also influenced the attribution of authorship of New Testament literature. Ecclesiastes is classified as Wisdom Literature; that is, a collection of proverbs, wise sayings, guides to conduct. The name of the composer/author/editor is Qoheleth, a name derived from the Hebrew indicating an assembly. A possible translation: teacher, preacher. The English name, Ecclesiastes, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth. The author is skeptical, a doubter, somewhat cynical, questioning traditions. He believes in God, but not in afterlife, an idea found also in some of our Psalms; for example, Psalm 49:12, 19-20. Like any book of Scripture, Ecclesiastes is not taken by itself as the only word on a subject, but must be supplemented with the rest of Scriptures. There are ideas of great diversity
throughout Scripture. This diversity demonstrates the need for a guiding Church and a history of interpretation.
Qoheleth’s skepticism shines from the opening verse of the book and opens our first reading of this Sunday, “Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity!” The Hebrew word translated as “vanity,” among other meanings, has the meaning of “vapor, emptiness.” After the opening verse of the book, our reading skips to chapter two. Qoheleth laments over a man who has “labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill. But to what purpose? He has to leave it all to someone who has not worked for it.” That thought and those that follow in this reading are not recommended for people suffering from depression. Next he asks, “What does a man get out of all his work and his anxiety with which he has labored under the sun?” To this question the author has a depressing response, “All a man’s days are sorrow and grief in his occupation. Even at night his mind is not at rest.” Then the coup de grace, “It is all vanity (emptiness, vapor).” Fortunately the Scriptures are not limited to Ecclesiastes! The reason for selecting these thoughts as our first reading: a similarity to our gospel reading, which disparages fights over inheritance and the emptiness of accumulation and celebration of wealth, only to find out that the end is death. For Qoheleth, that would be the end. For Christians there is God and an afterlife.
The Responsorial Psalm 90 sings of the weakness of the human condition, not totally unlike the thoughts of Qoheleth. Examples: “You turn humankind back to dust.” “You make an end of them in their sleep.” “Like the changing grass . . . by evening it wilts and fades.” But there are also more positive thoughts with a plea for wisdom of heart. Although Ecclesiastes did not think much of industriousness, the Psalmist has a better view of work. “Prosper the work of our hands for us.” The People’s Response asks for openness to God, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
The second reading, from Colossians, continues from last Sunday attributing to us what has already happened to Christ. We have been raised with him (baptism), therefore seek what is above (in a moral life). With Christ we have died and are hidden with him until he returns in glory. As he will then be in glory, so will we. For that reason we must put aside immorality. The author lists expressions of an immoral life, “taking off the old self, putting on the new.” He attacks divisions in the Church, divisions based on outward appearance, on race, on social status, “slave or free.” What is the author’s solution for divisions in the Church? “Christ is all in all.”
Today’s gospel is from a catch-all chapter, a collection of leftovers Luke wants to include in his gospel. Some of the thoughts expressed in this chapter echo those of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain, which in Luke’s gospel is called the Sermon on the Plain. The section given to us today is on greed, on hoarding of possessions. The first example is as modern as can be — the fights in which heirs engage over an inheritance. A man approaches Jesus with a plea, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” The man’s brother may have been the firstborn. This usually meant the firstborn son. Among other privileges, he received a double portion of the inheritance; see Deuteronomy 21:17. (This custom was widespread in ancient Near East societies.) Jesus’ wisdom knows how to handle the man’s request “Who appointed me your judge and arbitrator?” Crowds of people gathered around Jesus. He turns to them with a warning “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not depend on it.” See Sirach 24:9, “The eye of the grasping man is not content with his share. Greed shrivels the soul.”
Next, a hoarder who was already rich. His harvest was so huge that he did not have enough storage room. He plans to tear down his barns (bins) and build bigger ones, in which he can store not only the harvest, but everything else. The rich man muses to himself, “Self, you have so many good things stored up for so many years. Take it easy! Eat! Drink! Throw a party!” What is wrong with that? Nothing whatsoever except that he forgot the ultimate giver of wealth. As the little parable says, “He was not rich in what matters to God.” The ultimate giver of wealth always has his eyes on sharing with people in need. In the end comes judgment, here expressed in a message from God, “You fool, this night your life will be taken from you. As for the things you prepared, to whom will they belong?” Sirach reminds us, “What use are possession to a greedy man? A man who hoards . . . is hoarding for others, and others will live sumptuously on his wealth.” A final word from the Preacher (Qoheleth) in Ecclesiastes 2:26 “A sinner’s job is to gather and store up for someone other, one who is pleasing to God.”