August 4 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Theme: So many ways of describing the same thing today! "The Big Question", "What's It All about (Alfie)?", or "There Must be More to Life than This", or even "You Can't Take It With You When You Go" are obvious contenders. (Notice how they suggest theme songs – if not exactly classic hymns.) Perhaps we should restrain ourselves and go for "Vanity of Vanities".
Introduction. Today we have an interesting variation on the theme of two ways of life (and death). The more usual contrast we find in the Scriptures (particularly in the prophets and the epistles) is drawn between the faithful and the unfaithful, the godly and the ungodly, the moral and the immoral, the spiritual and the worldly – or, to use, more Pauline language, the spirit and the flesh. Today's epistle reading has a fair dollop of this with Paul's references to the old way of life and the new. But the other two readings offer a different choice, between life that is ultimately meaningless and futile and one that has purpose and eternal significance. Tough choice, eh?
Background. Ever since the so-called Enlightenment we have been led to believe that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Science and the Christian faith; mercifully that particular misconception is largely behind us now. But for some reason the much more real and fundamental breach between Christianity and Economics (at least as it is practised in countries such as ours) seems to have largely escaped our notice. But think about it for a moment. Economics preaches competition; Christianity preaches cooperation. Economics preaches the pursuit of self-interest; Christianity preaches concern for others. Economics places a high value on scarcity and abhors surpluses; Christianity seeks enough for everyone and worships a God of abundance. Economics sees a shortage of housing as an opportunity to make a profit; Christianity sees it as a failure of love for the homeless. Economics sees foodstuffs as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder; Christianity sees them as gifts of God to feed the multitudes. Economics sees employees as costs to be minimised; Christianity sees them as fellow bearers of the image and likeness of God. Economics preaches that the purpose of life is to create wealth; Christianity preaches that the purpose of life is the union of all things with God.
No, Science is not the enemy of Christianity; Economics is. That's why we find virtually no arguments in the Gospels that could in any way be described as issues of scientific interest, and countless examples of Christ shocking one and all with his views on wealth, materialism, and other issues of consuming interest (pun intended) to Economists and their political vassals.
Right, now I've got that off my chest, let's turn immediately to existentialism, so beloved of my generation growing up in the fifties and sixties and all trying to look suitably scruffy and angst-ridden. We had discovered something called "anomie" or "alienation", someone called Jean-Paul Sartre, and somewhere called the Left Bank. At least, a small percentage of us had – those who wanted to be misunderstood as intellectuals and artists. The vast majority of my generation had discovered booze, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and having fun (or so they said). They just enjoyed being misunderstood by everyone over thirty, especially their parents. They had no idea what "angst" was, and certainly showed no signs of being ridden by it. Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Ionesco passed them by. I'm not a vindictive person, but I like to think that when their midlife crisis struck it was more severe than those suffered by we misunderstood intellectuals and artists who suffered all that angst in our late teens and early twenties. There must be some consolation for not noticing the Sixties were swinging until they were well and truly swung out.
The author of the wonderful Book of Ecclesiastes must have been the Jean-Paul Sartre of his day. He was certainly an existentialist. The modern form lent itself very well to the Theatre of the Absurd. It painted a picture of human life as basically "plot-less". It was as if we suddenly wake up to find ourselves on a blank stage with no idea of the script, the plot, or whether or not there is anyone "out there" - a producer, director, prompt, or even an audience; and very little idea of who the other actors on the stage really are. Above all, there seemed to be no way out – no way forward, much less upward. This is it – this is your lot until you die.
That's the angst that the Teacher (as the author of Ecclesiastes likes to call himself) is struggling with in this book. It reminds me in some way of the equally wonderful Book of Job. For Job the issue was, how can terrible things happen to good people as well as bad? Here the underlying issue is similar: how come the industrious and the feckless heir end up in the same way? What is the point of working hard, being smart, investing wisely and generally being the very embodiment of prudence if you're just one blood vessel lining away from death by aneurysm? It's a real question, as much today as it has ever been. And some forms of Christian preaching have not been very helpful in addressing this issue. Have we not been taught that there is a breach – a fundamental breach – between love of God and love of the world, even though we are told in perhaps our best known verse of Scripture that God "so loved the world" that he sent his Son to save it? Have we not been taught to downplay human achievement, especially our own, lest it lead us into the sin of pride? Do not our manuals on the spiritual life exhort us to detachment from, and indifference to, material things?
In other words, the Church has never quite cleansed itself from the evil of dualism, compounded by an ill-conceived eschatology. Our understanding of the End Times DOES matter: it should not be left to those we often think of as the lunatic fringe. Nor should it be left to gloomy cosmologists. The material world is not something that we will discard when we die and float off into the ether to be with God: nor is it something that will eventually die a natural death as the sun runs out of fuel. It is something that is being redeemed by and in Christ, moment by moment, until ALL is in Christ and Christ is in all. That's what Christianity teaches – at least, it does if it remembers to read St Paul as a mystic and not as a male chauvinist pig. And it teaches us that this moment by moment process of redemption takes place by Christ acting in and through us. That's why we are urged to work out our redemption in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12); that's why we are urged to do everything we do (even giving a glass of water to a thirsty person) to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31); and that's why we are even urged to speed the coming of the Parousia (2 Peter 3:12). The good we do is of eternal significance because it is a contribution to the redemption of creation and it's reunification in God. Once we get that into our heads existentialist angst need trouble us no more!
Ecclesiastes. The author, perhaps, was clinically depressed when he wrote this stuff; yet the question he is asking himself is one that occurs to most of us at some stage or another. What's the point of it all? Why work hard, do the right thing, provide for the family, and then discover that your heir is a hopeless party animal and is looking forward to drinking himself to death on "your" money? You work all day, he says, and you worry all night. Where's the sense in all that?
Taking It Personally.
· What would your answer be to a friend who asked this sort of question when all he or she had worked for over many years suddenly went up in smoke, was stolen or lost in some other "futile way?
· What is the point of your life?
· Reflect on the things you have done over the last week? In what way have they been "redemptive"?
· Pray slowly, reflectively, and repeatedly, "Your kingdom come on earth". Ask God to show you how you can help that process this week.
· It seems that the Teacher didn't enjoy his work. Do you? If so, does that change its spiritual value?
Colossians. As stated above there is a good deal of dualism in St Paul's writing here, BUT he overcomes it! Or, rather, he sees in Christ the means of overcoming it. All the stuff he urges us to "put to death" – the old "life" – no longer applies. It is the way of the self-centred – it is the mindset that Economics recognises in us and encourages us to maintain. We must "get rid of all such things". As we do so – process, not event – we will be "renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator". We will become more Christ-like or God-like. Ethnic and national differences will be overcome; economic class divisions will be abolished. Christ will be in all and all will be in Christ. That is the End to which God is working his purposes out – through us.
Taking It Personally.
· Spend some time reflecting on your baptism. Remind yourself of its significance. Give thanks. Ask for a greater awareness of its meaning in your life.
· Ponder verses 2-4, reflecting on them phrase by phrase. What do they mean for you? What reality do they have for you in your everyday life?
· Use verses 5-9 for a period of self-examination, and any necessary confession.
· When you are undressing to go to bed, call to mind the undressing and re-clothing imagery in verses 9 and 10. Make a little ritual out of the process. Or perhaps you might feel the imagery works better in the morning, shedding your night clothes and re-clothing yourself for the day.
Luke. We might be tempted to overlook the opening clash (verses 13-15) in our haste to get to the main act here, but we should resist. To my ears this little teaching is much clearer than the main block. Someone in the crowd is having problems with a sibling. The implication of his complaint is that his brother is refusing to share – he is being unjust and unfair – selfish and mean. Jesus' somewhat brusque reply suggests that there is not much to choose between the attitudes of the two brothers: both our motivated by the same desire. One has it, and wants to keep it. The other hasn't got it and wants it. Neither is showing love for his brother; both attach more importance to the loot than to their relationship. But turning to the main story, what exactly is the rich fool guilty of? He has received a bumper harvest from his land, more than he has storage space for it. What can he do? He decides to build more storage space. (He probably held a B.A. (Econ) from a redbrick university somewhere.) His plan is to put his good fortune in his version of a Kiwi-Saver account and provide for his future. That way he will have "ample goods laid up for many years". He can finally enjoy life. BUT God tells him that he is a fool to think like this because...that blood vessel is finally going to break that very night, and his wonderful retirement funds will pass to who-knows-who. Only in the very last verse do we get the punch-line: what he has done is to think only of himself. He has not been "rich toward God".
Taking It Personally.
· How should he have been "rich toward God" in those circumstances? If he gave away his surplus, would he not depress the market?
· Do you agree or disagree that this passage offers a critique of modern Economics?
· What changes (if any) do you feel you should make in respect of your personal finances in the light of this story?
· Is Jesus anti-rich, or anti-success, or just out of touch with the real world in which we have to make a living?