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Sermon (8/1): All Is Vanity, And Then You Die

August 2, 2010

Three friends are killed in a car accident and meet up at an orientation session in Heaven. St. Peter asks them what they would most like to hear said about themselves as their friends and family view them in the casket.

 The first man says, “I hope people will say that I was a wonderful doctor and a good family man.”

 The second man says, “I would like to hear people say that as a schoolteacher, I made a big difference in the lives of kids.”

 The third man says, “I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”

 I’m sure you’re all wondering what that joke has to do with our readings this morning. At first glance today’s readings might seem kind of moralistic, maybe even a bit scolding. Today, we hear from the Book of Ecclesiastes about how “All is vanity!” This is vanity! That is vanity! And we hear Jesus warning us to “guard against all forms of greed.”

But I actually think that that joke gets at the heart of what today’s scripture can open us up to. Sure, we’d like to live good lives and accomplish good things, heal people, teach people, and when we die be remembered for our good deeds. But underneath all that, we want to live and to live well. To live joyfully.

Ecclesiastes is one of the most interesting and provocative books of the Bible. Today, we heard a cut and pasted reading, pulling together a few different chunks from the beginning of the book, including Ecclesiastes famous refrain: “All is vanity!” And then we heard a parable of Jesus in which he makes a few direct references to Ecclesiastes.

Briefly put, in today’s parable from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points out that we can all die at any time and so we’d better live well while we can—something that the Book of Ecclesiastes spends the entirety of its 12 chapters reflecting upon.

Death can take us, each one of us, at any moment—how are we to live in light of that truth?

So let’s dig into Ecclesiastes and see if we might find something useful. Maybe our exploration of this text will all be “vanity,” but who knows?

To begin, however, I have to say that I don’t like how we tend to translate the Hebrew of the Book of Ecclesiastes into English. Look again at today’s reading:

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity… I saw all deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind… Sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity… All [mortals’] days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity…”

Variations of the phrase, “it is vanity” appear, in all, 38 in our translation of the Book of Ecclesiastes. 38 times. And of course, this is probably one of the most oft-quoted bits of the Bible. We’ve all probably heard it quoted in one context or another. “All is vanity!”

However, the Hebrew word in the original, “hevel,” does not mean vanity. Hevel literally means “breath” or “vapor.” And the writer of the book is using it metaphorically to mean “ephemeral” or “fleeting” or “insubstantial.” I looked at a whole bunch of English translations of Ecclesiastes and nearly all of them use “vanity” for “hevel.” I’m guessing that translation took root when it was first set down in the King James translation and then no one had the heart or the guts to correct it.

Still, there are a few English translations that reflect more accurately the Hebrew of our scripture. One translation reads: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher, Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Another reads, “Absolutely pointless!” And another: “All is to no purpose…”

But my favorite translation of Ecclesiastes appears in the Jewish Study Bible. There, the Hebrew, “hevel” is translated as “futility.”

When we change the word “vanity” to “meaningless” or “pointless” or “futility,” the reading is significantly changed, isn’t it? Labeling all manner of human behavior as “vanity” carries with it a moral judgment that is not there when we call human labor “futile.” If I label something you’ve done as “vanity,” I am calling into question your motives. I am accusing you of doing whatever you’ve done to puff yourself up, to glorify yourself, even to play God. But if I say what you’re doing is “futile,” I’m judging the outcome of your actions, not your motivations. I’m asserting that I don’t think you’re going to accomplish much of anything from your actions, but I’m not calling you a bad person for trying.

So here’s the final bit of today’s reading from Ecclesiastes, as translated by the Jewish Study Bible.

I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me–and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish?–and he will control all the wealth that I gained by toil and wisdom under the sun. That too is futile. And so I came to view with despair all the gains I had made under the sun. For sometimes a person whose fortune was made with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must hand it on to be the portion of somebody who did not toil for it. That too is futile, and a grave evil. For what does a man get for all the toiling and worrying he does under the sun? All his days his thoughts are grief and heartache, and even at night his mind has no respite. That too is futile.

Feels different, right? In this translation, Ecclesiastes is not concerned with the morality of human beings as they labor, day in and day out. Ecclesiastes is not judging humanity for struggling to be something greater than they are through their daily toil. No, in this, more accurate translation, we see that Ecclesiastes is preoccupied by an awareness that human labor seems to be of no ultimate use, that human labor is doomed to futility.

Ecclesiastes—which literally means, “teacher” or “preacher”—is less worried about the morality of our work and more worried about the practical value of our work.

For Ecclesiastes, the goal of life is joy. In chapter 3, Ecclesiastes writes (and I’ll be quoting from now on from the Jewish Study Bible translation), “I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for human beings is to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime; also that whenever a man does eat and drink and get enjoyment out of all his wealth, it is a gift of God.”

Similarly in today’s Gospel parable, Jesus relates how God calls the rich land-owner a “fool” since he spends his time and money building new storage space for his goods and then enjoying himself rather than enjoying himself earlier, when he could.

For Ecclesiastes, joy is the one worthwhile thing we can attain while laboring here on earth. Everything else we may seem to attain from our labors—wealth, safety, wisdom, knowledge—they can all be lost in a heartbeat. That is to say: my heart can stop beating at any moment and I can suddenly and irrevocably lose all my wealth, all my safety, all my wisdom, all my knowledge. Death is the great equalizer, says Ecclesiastes, but death cannot take away all my moments of joy, all those times I truly enjoyed what I was doing.

And, of course, it’s not only death that can be a great equalizer, dooming so much of our work to futility. Simple luck—good and bad—can exalt the foolish and slothful and lay low the wise and diligent.

Ecclesiastes writes:

“In a time of good fortune, enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect… In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness. So don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess, or you may be dumb-founded. Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool, or you may die before your time. It is better that you grasp the one without letting go of the other… For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err…”

I love that passage.

“Don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess… Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool…

“It is better that you grasp the one without letting go of the other…” It is better to grasp wisdom without letting go of foolishness.

“For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err.”

What is Ecclesiastes up to? Is the writer of this piece of scripture warning us not to be too good? Is our Bible, our word of God, saying, “Don’t be too good.”

Years ago, I knew a retired priest in Connecticut, who had served a small suburban parish for over 40 years and then retired to the city where I lived and helped out our church, celebrating at weekday services and occasionally preaching on Sunday. And often, in the receiving line, he would shake my hand and say, “Don’t be too good.”

I always thought that was such a strange thing for a priest to say. “Don’t be too good.” And I wondered what he meant.

Surely, God wants us to strive to be as good, as Godly, as we possibly can, right?

Well, maybe not. Maybe we are called to enjoy the life we’ve been given, here and now. And the good thing about goodness, the good thing about being giving, being forgiving, being nice, being kind, is all that stuff, all that goodness, all that Godliness produces joy. All that Godliness produces joy right here, right now.

And meanwhile, the bad thing about greed, as Jesus and Ecclesiastes illustrate for us, is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t, it won’t make us any happier. It won’t bring us more joy.

Still, Ecclesiastes argues well that we can overdo the goodness thing. We can, sometimes, strive to be too moral, too righteous, too perfect. And I think we can sense when that’s happening because we stop enjoying ourselves. We stop enjoying life. And in the words of Jesus’ parable, we are storing up earthly treasures, treasures we cannot take with us beyond the grave. So what’s the point?

One final thought:

A painter asks the owner of his gallery: “How are my paintings selling?”

The gallery owner answers: “Well, there’s good news and bad news. A man came in and asked me if you were a painter whose work would become more valuable after your death. When I told him I thought you were, he bought everything you had in the gallery.

And the painter says, “Wow! That’s terrific! What’s the bad news?”

And the gallery owner answers: “He was your doctor.”

– The Rev. Jamie McElroy

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