“Perfectly pointless. Everything is perfectly pointless.” [CEB] These words from Ecclesiastes hit me over the head like a 2 X4 when I read them at the beginning of the week. The NRSV translates it as “vanity” which means we are stroking our own ego. We could care less about how our choices in life affect others. The Hebrew word used here also means “emptiness, transitory, or unsatisfactory.” These are also powerful words to describe what the author of Ecclesiastes is telling us. Yet, somehow, “perfectly pointless” made the most impact upon my soul.
What is “perfectly pointless” we might ask? The author goes on to tell us that “It’s an unhappy obsession that God has given to human beings. When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after the wind.” The Message describes it as “spitting into the wind” which is even more powerful than chasing it. After all, if we spit into the wind, it flies back on our faces!
The cherry on top of this despair sundae is a verse that is left out of our reading: “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.” Wow, if that doesn’t get our attention, I don’t know what will. The author of Ecclesiastes is giving us a wake up call. It’s an opportunity to think about what we are doing with our brief time here on planet Earth. It’s a challenge to look at parts of ourselves we would rather avoid.
If everything is perfectly pointless, it leaves us feeling naked and defenseless. The things we own and the activities we’re involved in are all meaningless…or are they? Is this REALLY the point Ecclesiastes is trying to make? Surely, there have to be some exceptions to the “Everything is perfectly pointless” rule. There have to be some activities that matter, that count for something.
After reflecting on our First Lesson, I’ve come to the conclusion that the author means to strip us down to our bare essentials so that he can build us back up. The goal is not for us to wallow in despair. Instead, the goal is take an inventory of the lives we’ve constructed and do a little remodeling, or perhaps have a very big yard sale since our lives are cluttered with junk both inside and out. The author of Ecclesiastes is trying to tell us that we often put a lot of hard work and effort into things that are perfectly pointless.
In the second half of our reading, we see what the author thinks is the biggest distraction of them all: Money and the way we use it. With brutal clarity, the author tell us, “I hated the things I worked so hard for here under the sun, because I will have to leave them to someone who comes after me. And who knows whether that one will be wise or foolish? Either way, that person will have control over the results of all my hard work and wisdom here under the sun. That too is pointless.”
Wow, I don’t know how you feel, but I find it really hard to hear this. And yet I know it is true. The wealth I’ve accumulated with Gary, the house we live in, the possessions we’ve collected, are not permanent things, they are transitory. They can also become a big distraction that keeps us from seeing what’s really important in our lives and in the world around us.
So what do we do with this brutal 2X4 upside our heads? Does this mean we should sell everything, and give it to the poor like Jesus told the rich young man to do? [Mt 19:16-22] Or does it mean we let ourselves off the hook because we’re not “really rich” since most of us consider ourselves to be middle class Americans? It seems to me that these two options are extremes on either end. I don’t think Ecclesiastes is calling us to live in poverty, but it’s also not giving us an easy way out. Instead, we are called to walk a difficult middle ground where we constantly re-evaluate if we’re being good stewards of our wealth and the time we’ve been given.
I believe the ultimate goal of this text, is for us to realize that our wealth and possessions can become terrible distractions. They can isolate us from others. They skew our perspective of what’s really important. They can also become very self-serving where we tell ourselves they are a reward for all our hard work and effort. Therefore, we can spend all of it on ourselves.
These are some of the hard truths Ecclesiastes is trying to make us face. It’s there to remind us that we are people of privilege whether we’re aware of it or not. We’re Americans, so this means we live in a country that is one of ten nations who possess 79 percent of the world’s total wealth, even though these ten nations constitute only 29 percent of the world’s total population. Most of us are white, which also gives us an advantage. The men among us generally make more money than women who are working the same jobs as we are. Straight people face far less discrimination and violence than their LGBT+ siblings do.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Ecclesiastes shatters the myth that those who work hard always get ahead of those who don’t. The truth of the matter is that life is often unfair and unjust. The opportunities to accumulate wealth are given to some and denied to others. I can cite endless statistics. But if we’re paying attention, we know it’s true. What Ecclesiastes does so powerfully, is strip everything, and I mean everything, away. I’m not exactly sure what to do with all of this truth telling. I suspect you’re struggling with the same thing.
So, where do we go from here? I feel like I’ve been rambling a bit this morning, but this text cannot be tied up with a pretty bow. It’s messy. It’s complicated. When we arrive at our gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook either.
The story is typically called “The Parable of Rich Fool.” Like Ecclesiastes, it’s meaning is painfully clear. In fact, Jesus didn’t even need to tell the story because he explained the meaning of it before he began telling it: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
The folly of the rich man in the story, the thing he did that was perfectly pointless, was his decision to build bigger barns so he could hoard his abundance of crops. It’s clear that it NEVER EVEN DAWNED ON HIM that we are blessed to be a blessing. Our wealth, in whatever form it is given to us, is meant to be shared with others, especially the poor and marginalized. He had an opportunity to do good in the world around him, but he died unexpectedly. In the end, all of his wealth was given away because he could not take it with him.
Perhaps the most powerful insight of this parable is that wealth has a way of distorting our perspective. We think it can buy us safely and security. But, in the end, it cannot do this. Therefore, we need to rethink how we use our wealth. We also need to contemplate the lasting legacy we wish to leave behind.
Jesus ended his parable by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” If we don’t know what it means to be “rich toward God” Scripture is quite clear on this subject.
While I was at the Wild Goose Festival I had the opportunity to hear Rev. William Barber speak. If you’ve ever heard him speak, it is a powerful experience. One of the things he said that really resonated with me was that “There are 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that tell us how we should treat the poor, women and children, and the least of these. If we cut out these verses, the Bible will fall apart.” Being “rich toward God” means we use whatever wealth and privilege we have to give a hand up to poor and marginalized in our midst.
One of the things I find most disturbing about America in 2019 is that our lack of compassion for those who are suffering seems to be at an all-time low. The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider. Our elected officials seem to have no problem spending ridiculous amounts of money on defense, while cutting programs that serve the most vulnerable among us. Rampant racism blinds us to the truth of the struggles our black and brown siblings face.
We look at all of this news that scrolls past us on Facebook and is spoken of by news media, and we seem strangely unmoved by it all. Or we are blindly oblivious to the struggles that the poor and racial minorities among us face. Or we are just so overwhelmed by it all, that it makes us feel paralyzed to do anything about it.
Whatever the case may be, Ecclesiastes and our gospel lesson are giving us an opportunity to make different choices about the way we use our wealth than we are currently doing. These Scriptures are calling us to remove the blinders wealth has put on us. These blinders keep us from seeing the suffering and inequality that exist in our world.
Finally, they call us to do things differently; to build bigger tables instead of building bigger barns; to realize that much of what we do in life is perfectly pointless; so it’s way past time for us to do something that really matters. The one thing I hope all of us will do this week is not let ourselves off the hook, when it comes to what the Bible is trying to tell us. Let’s all struggle with these powerful passages of Scripture. May they give us a new perspective, and inspire us to use our wealth and privilege differently. AMEN.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck