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Ordinary Time: Ecclesiastes 4-5
The point of our passages from Ecclesiastes today is that the love of money is destructive, or put positively, Ecclesiastes calls us to contentment in what God has given us. Contentment, rest, and proper enjoyment of what we have are acts of faith, believing that what we have God has given, and being grateful for it. Now you may have noticed that I have sections of both chapters 4 and 5 here, and that is because there is a clear thematic connection between them, in that both are focused on these issues. They both observe oppression, and its source in greed and insecurity, and they both lay bare the futility in loving money. Let’s read 4:1-3.
He begins by noting the existence of oppression. Not that God will save us from it, like the Psalms, or that people need to correct it, like the Prophets; he is just observing it. Oppression exists, and there is nothing to comfort the tears of the oppressed, or save them from harm. Of course, we know that Christ in his return will do just that, wiping all tears away, but in the meantime, oppression here goes uncorrected. It is better, he says, for the dead, because at least they have an end to suffering, but better even to never have existed. This is an interesting bit of acerbic irony, because that’s not really an option for humans. We *do* exist, and didn’t have a choice in the matter, and thus the “better” option isn’t really an option.
So we live it. And what’s more, we know where it comes from: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” We do this. Humans, acting out of greed, ambition, and envy, try their best to get more, to do more, to take more, and in doing so, oppress their neighbor. But, you might say, what are we supposed to do? If our toil and skill are automatically envious, do we stop?
Vss. 5-6 demonstrate the balance that is wisdom, “Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh. Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.” Balance is what he is advocating for here. Fools, doing nothing, destroy themselves, so the “don’t toil” option isn’t a very good one. However, better is to have less by holding quiet in one hand, than in toiling to fill both. Toil, yes, but in its place, balanced with rest and trust in God.
A person can work, and scrap, and fight, and angle, and win and in the end, they will have nothing and be sitting, waiting for death with a life left empty. If you have watched the show Succession, you know what I mean. Siblings all fighting over who will take over the aging father’s billion dollar business, reigning over them and is the most brutal of all. And yet, we poor non-billionaires see this in life too. How many of us have been betrayed by a friend? Been hurt by another’s gossip? Or maybe we should ask, how many times have we seen someone else being victimized, and done nothing because it might cost us? How often have we let something immoral slide because it might cost us a relationship, or our job?
Like the Teacher said, “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them.” See, oppression of the poor and the violation of justice is not just from the rich on the poor; the rich do it to the rich, and the poor to the poor. Everyone, no matter how high, always has someone above them. And so the cycle of perpetual oppression, fueled by greed, continues on. And yet, “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” Why? “When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” What this means is that the person who takes and consumes never has their appetite satisfied, never sated. I’m sure we don’t have that problem! Walmarts and Targets and Costcos! Amazon making money hand over fist every year! Why? Because we can’t stop spending money, because we too are full of envy of what another has, and have started consuming, and are addicted.
In contrast, ‘Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” The one who works hard, enjoys their labor, and holds their gifts lightly, sleeps well; those obsessed with wealth are anxious about getting more and fear losing what they have. They sleep poorly.
This is vital for the Church to hear. One of the reasons Scripture and tradition require Christians to give generously, to the church and to the poor, is not because it earns points with God. First, it is a recognition that God has given what we have as gifts to us, and so we give of the firstfruits of our harvest in gratitude. But second, it is to move us to what these passages are teaching, which is to be free of the idols of pursuing wealth, prestige, and power. When we are slow to give, holding tight to our money, unwilling to give more than we can justify so we can keep living the lives we want to live out of envy of others, then there is the distinct possibility that it, like power and prestige and skills and objects, are idols that we have chosen to worship.
In 5 vss. 18-20, tells us yet again to do our work, but then to enjoy the fruits, and to let that be enough. Sometimes there will be more, sometimes less; enjoy what you have when you have it. Break the cycles of envy, greed, and consumption, which are the seeds of oppression. And do as Jesus said in Matthew 6: “‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” To enjoy the fruit of one’s labor is not wrong, done rightly. It is an act of faith. God gave the bounty, and we get to enjoy it. That is the gospel, in essence: God gave and will give us what is good, and all we need to do is receive it and give thanks.
I saw the film To Live when I was a teenager. It is a Chinese film, and has stuck with me. During the Chinese revolution, this well-off family loses everything, and through the course of decades have varied fortunes, losing their children along the way. After all this tragedy, all this loss, the film comes to a close with those who remain of the family sitting down to eat, a moment of poignant joy in the midst of terrible loss. This is what the Teacher says, basically. Life is hard, but acting out of envy is to participate in the oppression that plagues the world, greed fueling the destruction of others. But gratitude, radical, faith-filled thanksgiving to God, breaks the cycle and demonstrates to the world that we are more than what we can buy, or achieve, or earn. So work, but also rest; earn, but also enjoy; gain, but be generous; and in all things give thanks to God who gives all, and so avoid becoming a fool to earn a buck. Amen.
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