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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 2
What is the point of our labors, under the sun? We work and strive, we save and plan, and in the end…we control nothing. Nothing is certain. Nothing is guaranteed. There is no way to game the system. We have but this life to live here before our physical death, and no matter what you accomplish, there is no avoiding the inevitable.
The Teacher learned this not simply from theory, but from practice. In this chapter, he explains that he tested empirically the limits of experience. I excerpted the verses from the reading, but he drinks and eats, dallies with women, acquires slaves and builds great buildings…And “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them…and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
What the teacher does here is raise the question of pleasure, of enjoyment, of what the point of our work in this world is for? Some have answered that the experimentation should lead to a full embrace of the hedonistic impulse, to experience as much physical pleasure as possible, like Dorian Gray. If you aren’t familiar, The Picture of Dorian Gray Is about a young man who through an unexplained curse is allowed to explore whatever sensuality he wants, but all of the effects of his sin are put upon a portrait of him rather than himself. Towards the end of the novel, with every debauched sin explored, it is revealed that the portrait is hideous, while Dorian Gray appears beautiful as ever, though it drives him to madness. Others say that enjoying the pleasurable things of the world is folly, that we should deny ourselves all of those pleasures, seeking something beyond physical enjoyment. Buddhism is the most consistent example, where even the self is to cease its existence as an individual and be free from all worldly attachment.
There is truth in both, but to go to either extreme is indeed folly; to embrace pleasure as ultimate would be to become enslaved, the puppet of pleasure, always seeking more and becoming a hollow image of your true self. It is no lie that at 50 we “deserve the face we have,” at least to a certain degree. On the other hand, to deny ourselves all pleasurable things would be a kind of atheism, which is to say, a denial of the good things God has given us. So how do we strike the right balance?
We will find it as we press on to his discussion also of wisdom and folly. “Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. ‘The wise have eyes in their heads, but fools walk in darkness.’ Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity.”
There appears to be a contradiction here: it is better to be wise, yet because both wise and foolish die, he says, “why then have I been so wise?” He goes on to say, the wise will be forgotten just as surely as the foolish, and it leads him to say that he “hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” The trick is, both things can be true. Being wise can be an advantage in this life on earth, but also gives no advantage in the face of death. This is not nihilism, but rather the key to entering into enjoyment of life. For this humbling realization, that all our accomplishments and pleasures and wisdom will ultimately disappear when we do, does not render them without value, but allows us to see them for their true value. God controls the world, and we are not God; we are given no certainties, other than that at the end we are all equal, when the curtain goes down.
Rather than lead to despair, however, this truth is meant to free us. When we acknowledge this as true, accepting the fact that nothing is truly ever under our control, then we can stop straining ourselves at the cost of our health, our relationships, our happiness, just to make a bit more scratch, or rise one more level up the corporate ladder, or be slightly better known. We are free, in other words, to simply live, and to enjoy living.
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
If we believe our accomplishments in this life will fulfill us without God giving them meaning, then they will turn to ashes in our mouths, just like Dorian Gray’s pleasures did. We have a lot in life, and it is not easy, nor is there a straightforward explanation of the meaning of things for those under the sun. But in the midst of a life where suffering is a reality, our portion that God has given us is to find enjoyment in the things we are given. It’s not just eating and drinking, but those are representative of the good things in life. They are given for our enjoyment, but we can only ever truly enjoy them when we know that 1) they won’t change the outcome of our lives, but also that 2) they are given as gifts to make life on this earth full and rich and joyful. Wisdom helps us to see through the darkness that, despite the fact that death levels us all, there is goodness and joy to be found in what we do have.
God gives us the ability to truly enjoy the bounty of life. That is what makes this life under the sun not just bearable, but indeed worth living. And we in Christ have more knowledge of what lays beyond this mortal life. Jesus Christ made God known to us more deeply than ever before. He is wisdom incarnate. And he has made it known that this life is not all there is, and that death isn’t the end. St. Paul once said, “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? …If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” But Paul then goes on to say, When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ Because Christ is risen, so also will we be, by faith. In the meantime, we may eat and drink, not as those who have no hope, but knowing it is all a gift, a harvest to bless our time here as we await our Lord’s coming. So enjoy what God has given you, not letting it consume you, but with gratitude, knowing it is from the hand of the one who has said that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, even suffering, and even death. Amen.
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