Sunday Sermon for July 31, 2022, the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Readings: Ecc 1:2, 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21
In the first reading today we hear from a man who calls himself Qoheleth, the son of King David. Traditionally, this has been understood to refer to Solomon because of the wisdom that comes up frequently in the book. The name Qoheleth means a preacher or a teacher, but in the present context it might be better understood as a collector of sayings. The concept of a collector of sayings is suggested because most of the Book of Ecclesiastes is not written in first person; the author refers to himself only in the very beginning of the book and at the very end. The rest is objective teachings. This same understanding also applies in the Book of Proverbs that was penned by Solomon.
Among these nuggets of wisdom is the fantastic line with which our reading begins: “Vanity of vanities!…all things are vanity!” As Solomon reflects on how people live their lives and all the various things on which they place such great importance, he realizes that the common point of it all is that it is vanity. If we think about it for a moment, we do many things that are just plain foolish and a total waste of time. The problem is that we are convinced, somehow, that what I am doing is important and not a waste.
Reading through Ecclesiastes, one finds a number of things that are labelled as vanity to which we might take exception. If we were to put things into a modern context, we might say things like spending hours on video games, playing with our smart phone, keeping up on the latest gossip, trying to impress people, or striving for more money or material goods for selfish reasons would, I am quite sure, be called vanity by Qoheleth. However, if you are a video game aficionado, someone who is attached to the cell phone, or someone who is very interested in what your favorite movie star had for dinner last night, you might take umbrage at the idea that such things are vanity.
Even more, since we live in this very materialistic society, we might find the teaching regarding working to obtain wealth or material goods to be upsetting. But our Lord reminds us in the Gospel that even if a person is rich, life does not consist of possessions. He then tells the parable of the man who tore down his barns and built bigger barns to hold his abundant harvest. The night he finished the task, the man died. Jesus asks: “the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
Nothing is inherently sinful about having material possessions, but we need to be so careful because they become attachments and we make idols, of sorts, out of them. St. Paul even points this out in the second reading when he tells us to put to death the things in us that are earthly, among these he mentions “greed that is idolatry.” If it is greed, it is disordered and selfish; this is why St. Paul can call it idolatry.
On the other side of this is something that is not vanity. Rather, it is the only thing that is truly most important because it will remain for eternity. St. Paul tells us that we need to think about the things that are above rather than those of earth. The reason he gives is that in baptism we have died with Christ in baptism so that our lives are hidden in God. This death we have experienced in baptism also means we have been raised with Christ in baptism and, as members of Christ, we are already seated at God’s right hand.
So, if we are focused on the things of earth, we are not living as citizens of Heaven. Clearly, while we are living in this world, we must do what is necessary to pay our bills, feed our children, and care for the needs of the body. Not only are these things not wrong, they are required of us. Once again, we see that neither money nor material things are problematic in and of themselves. However, if we put too much focus on them, become worried and anxious about them, or make them into little gods, then they become a problem.
If we are to seek the things that are above, then we need to seek God and His will, we need to make sure prayer is our priority, and we need to work toward detachment from the things of the world. This kind of disposition will help us step away from the vanity of the gerbil wheel and all that the world holds to be important and focus, instead, on God and what He thinks is important.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.