“How I long for a poor Church for the poor!”
These were some of the first words of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and the Readings this week seem providentially to support our new pontiff’s emphasis on the spiritual value of poverty. Texts from the Old and New Testaments remind us that human happiness is not to be found in the accumulation of material goods. Riches are fleeting and empty. We are called instead to “store up treasure in heaven, where neither rust nor moth destroy, where thieves cannot break in and steal.”
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.
Since this is Ecclesiastes’ only appearance in the Lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days, my readers may forgive me for saying a little more about this Reading than I commonly do. We must make the most of Ecclesiastes’ liturgical cameo appearance!
Ecclesiastes is one of the most atypical books of the Old Testament, a composition virtually unique in its genre that voices opinions seemingly contrary to the mainstream of biblical teaching. In it, a persona who seems to identify himself as Solomon engages in a philosophical thought-experiment about the meaning of life that leads him to the brink of despondency. Despite the darkness of the book, however, believers through the ages have found solace and catharsis in its pages, and spiritual writers have continued to recommend meditation on it as an aid to detachment from the temporal world.
In the Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes is known by the Hebrew title of the primary voice of the book, Qoheleth. “Qoheleth” is a rare and unusual word, a feminine active participle based on the root qahal, “an assembly, a congregation,” probably meaning “the leader of a congregation.” The Greek and Latin traditions translated “Qoheleth” literally, building a participle from the Greek root ekklesia, “congregation,” thus giving us “Ecclesiastes.” Many modern English translations render “Qoheleth” as “the Preacher” as a cultural equivalent to “congregational leader.”
In the Jewish tradition, the Book of Qoheleth is part of the ketuvim, specifically one of the “five scrolls” (megillot) read at the great liturgical feasts. Qoheleth is read during the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. While at first the reading of such a dour book seems ill-suited for the festive occasion of Tabernacles, nonetheless there is a suitability: Tabernacles is a harvest festival that has an element similar to American Thanksgiving. Ecclesiastes teaches a balanced view of feasting: affirming its legitimate enjoyment (“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart,” 9:7) while also urging temperance and recognition of coming death and judgment (“But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” 11:9).
In the Greek and Latin traditions, Ecclesiastes found a settled place after Proverbs and before Song of Songs, which three books came to be understood in the Christian spiritual tradition as representing the illuminative, purgative, and unitive ways to God, respectively.
The genre of Ecclesiastes is unique. Like Job and Song of Songs, the book has multiple voices and could theoretically be performed as a theater piece. However, in Ecclesiastes, the number of voices is minimal: there is only a narrator (Eccl. 1:1, or 1:1-11; and 12:9-14) and “Qoheleth” (Eccl. 1:12–12:8). The first-person speech of Qoheleth dominates the book; therefore, the genre of Ecclesiastes may helpfully be compared to a one-man, one-act play, introduced and concluded by a narrator. After a brief introduction, an actor calling himself “Qoheleth” and dressed like Solomon strides onto the stage to deliver a series of powerful and poetic soliloquies, at the conclusion of which the curtain falls, and the narrator’s voice summarizes the message of the “play” for the audience. That is not to suggest that Qoheleth was composed for performance; it is a “literary drama,” written to be read and pondered rather than performed, like certain existentialist plays in modern times (e.g. Sartre’s “Waiting for Godot”).
The structure of Ecclesiastes is intentionally loose and rambling. Qoheleth often engages in asides or digressions. Nonetheless, careful study does reveal a basic pattern and progression in the work. After a double introduction (1:12-15; 1:16-18), Qoheleth delivers six reflections on the theme of “vanity” (Heb. hevel) in 2:1–6:9. In vv. 6:10-12, there is a transition and introduction to the second half of the book, where the motif of “vanity” (hevel) is less prominent, and the idea of ignorance or incomprehensibility comes to the fore. Thus Qoheleth delivers four mediations on theme “one can’t find out” (7:1–8:17) and another four on “one doesn’t know” (9:1–11:6). Qoheleth’s “performance” reaches its finale with the recitation of masterful poem on youth, aging, and death (11:7–12:8). After the “curtain drop,” the voice of the narrator focuses the message of the play for the audience, lest Qoheleth’s provocative speeches be misunderstood or misapplied.
There are several different ways in which the perspective of Ecclesiastes can be incorporated into the fuller perspective revealed by the Scriptures as a whole.
Ecclesiastes as Canonical Thought Experiment
In one sense, Ecclesiastes may be considered a philosophical “thought-experiment,” a canonically-sanctioned attempt to find out what results from limiting one’s perspective only to temporal, material, empirical reality (things “under the sun”) and unaided reason. The results are meager. It does not lead to happiness, but to despondency. Although Qoheleth’s thought does not degenerate into atheism, since God’s existence is a fact accessible to reason from the existence and design of the cosmos and the things in it, nonetheless he cannot reason to God’s goodness, the immortality of the soul, or to an ultimate meaning in life. Ecclesiastes represents a useful intellectual exercise for believers to engage in. Since the temptation to abandon the perspective of faith is always present for believers, it is helpful to discover where such a faithless perspective, consistently applied, eventually leads. There is no hope or joy down this intellectual path, and the discovery of this fact can help strengthen the resolve of the believer to hold fast his faith.
Ecclesiastes as the Purgative Way to God
The Christian tradition has always contextualized the perspective of Ecclesiastes according to its canonical order after Proverbs and before Song of Songs. Proverbs represents the illuminative way to God, the approach to God through acquisition of knowledge. Ecclesiastes represents the purgative path to God, the approach through detachment from the things of this world. The Song represents the unitive path, the way of love and communion.
Strictly speaking, the progress of thought in Ecclesiastes is not a purgative way to God, but it can be a powerful aid to the reader who is following that way. Qoheleth himself does not make progress toward God in the course of his thought; but the believer who exercises the faith that Qoheleth does not, will find Qoheleth’s meditations on the vanity of all created things—pleasure, wealth, and power—an effective assistance for his own detachment from the things of this world. The spiritual journey of the Christian inevitably involves self-denial, mortification, and ascesis—in the midst of the struggle these things involve, there is always the temptation to abandon the path and seek consolation in temporal pleasures and achievements: sex, drugs, food, money, fame. Thankfully, Qoheleth’s reflections vigorously refute the notion than any lasting happiness is to be found in these things. Thus the believer can find paradoxical consolation in Ecclesiastes, inasmuch as it confirms him in his choice to value the things of the spirit over the things of the flesh. Ecclesiastes is a catalyst for detachment and purgation, and many of the faithful have found meditation on it to be powerfully cathartic.
Ecclesiastes as the Bad News that Anticipates the Good News
Qoheleth captures the fatalism and despondency of even the best philosophies that operate without the light of the revelation of the resurrected Jesus Christ. It effectively paints the picture of the gray alternative to the embrace of the Gospel. It can be likened to the Bad News (“there is no hope beyond death”) necessary for full appreciation of the Good News (“Jesus offers eternal life”). In a sense, every human person must go through the experience of Ecclesiastes either personally or vicariously in order to grasp the significance of the Gospel. Persons who remain convinced that their happiness will be attained with the next promotion, the next raise, the next sexual technique, the next drug, the next whatever, will never see the need for salvation through Jesus Christ. One needs first to despair of finding lasting happiness in temporal affairs before a life of self-denial in communion with Jesus Christ makes sense.
Questions of Qoheleth Whose Answer is Christ
“What profit have we for all our toil?” (1:3; 2:22; 3:9)
“Toil for the food that endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:27)
“Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” (1:10)
“This cup … is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20)
“Who knows if the Spirit of a man goes upward?” (3:21)
Only the one who has ascended on high. (Eph 4:8-10)
“Who can bring a man to see what will be after him?” (3:22; 6:12; 8:7; 10:14)
“I am the first and the last … now write what you see … what is to take place hereafter.” (Rev 1:19)
“That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:24)
“[Christ] also descended into the depths of the earth … He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens …” (Eph 4:9-10)
“Who knows what is good for man?” (6:12)
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, … and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15)
Ecclesiastes as the Question Whose Answer is Christ
Ecclesiastes may also be regarded as the one Old Testament book that most poignantly articulates the question whose answer is Jesus of Nazareth. Qoheleth continually asks rhetorical questions expressing the plight of the human experience: Is there anything new under the sun (Eccl. 1:10a)? Who knows if the spirit of a man goes upward (3:21)? Who can show a man what will be after him (Eccl. 6:12)? Who can tell him how it will be (Eccl. 8:7)? The answer to all these questions is the God-Man, Jesus Christ (see table). Ecclesiastes is unflinching in expressing the agnosticism and fatalism that would suffocate human happiness if the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ had never taken place. In light of the whole canon, Ecclesiastes describes the hungers of the human heart that find satisfaction in Jesus.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17 :
R. (1) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
You turn man back to dust,
saying, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Psalm 90 is the only Psalm attributed to Moses. It begins Book IV of the Psalter (Pss 90-106)—perhaps the most introspective, reflective and sometimes melancholy of the Five Books of Psalms. Psalm 90 follows immediately upon the disastrous and catastrophic Psalm 89—a Psalm that begins with a glorification of the Davidic king and covenant, but two-thirds of the way through abruptly switches to a narration of the destruction of Jerusalem and the capture, imprisonment, and exile of the Davidic king. All seems lost at the end of Psalm 89, and the Davidic covenant seems to have come to an end. Israel then turns back to Moses, as it were, in Psalm 90, to receive some advice and consolation. Moses leads Israel in a melancholy meditation on the fleetingness of human endeavors—a meditation that seems appropriate after witnessing the destruction of all the strength, wealth, and beauty of the Kingdom of David in the previous psalm. Moses teaches Israel that all the efforts of this life are so brief from the perspective of eternity. Only in God is anything found that is lasting. Knowing that we can do nothing of lasting value in our own power, we turn to the Eternal God and ask him to “establish the works of our hands for us” (better than “prosper the works …”), that is, to empower us to accomplish something of lasting value in this life.
3. The Second Reading is Col 3:1-5, 9-1:
Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
For you have died,
and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears,
then you too will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry.
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed, for knowledge,
in the image of its creator.
Here there is not Greek and Jew,
circumcision and uncircumcision,
barbarian, Scythian, slave, free;
but Christ is all and in all.
We persevere in our semi-continuous march through Colossians during this stretch of Ordinary Time. Although this selection was not chosen specifically to fit the theme of the other Readings, we could hardly ask for a better thematic coherence in this instance. St. Paul calls us to “seek what is above,” not “what is on earth.” The seeking of “what is on earth”—namely, wealth, physical pleasure, and pride—is at the root of all the sins that St. Paul describes as “earthly”: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, lying.
If the people around us see that we are still participating in the “rat race” for money, sex, and power, they will rightly conclude that God is not truly present in our lives. The Christian life requires a transcendent vision that sees beyond and above all these temporal goals.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus,
“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
He replied to him,
“Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”
Then he said to the crowd,
“Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Then he told them a parable.
“There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.
He asked himself, ‘What shall I do,
for I do not have space to store my harvest?’
And he said, ‘This is what I shall do:
I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.
There I shall store all my grain and other goods
and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you,
you have so many good things stored up for many years,
rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’
But God said to him,
‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you;
and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’
Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves
but are not rich in what matters to God.”
We continue to accompany Jesus on the “death march” to Jerusalem that is the Travel Narrative of Luke 9–19. On the way, Jesus teaches the values that we have to have to live as Christians who share with Jesus the road to the cross. No one who has decided to “deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow” Jesus can get bogged down fighting and haggling over earthly wealth, or storing it up.
We notice that the attitude of the rich man in the parable is strikingly similar to that of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Recognizing that he has enormous wealth, Solomon begins an experiment in pleasures of various kinds in an attempt to find meaning. Instead he finds vanity. Interestingly, though, it never occurs to Solomon in Ecclesiastes to expend his money in the alleviation of poverty or in other investments in the human community.
We also notice that it is not the production of wealth per se that merits this man’s condemnation, but his plan to hoard it for his own comfort. This is an important point. The production of wealth in itself can be good. The productivity of the land of the wealthy man could have been an indication of natural virtues: prudence, self-discipline, hard work. Rather, it is the intent to consume the wealth in self-indulgence that is vicious.
Material poverty in itself is not virtuous, because material poverty may be the result of laziness, imprudence, addiction, or some other vice. That is why Jesus teaches that “blessed are the poor in spirit,” which may be interpreted as “those who are poor for the sake of the Spirit,” that is, for spiritual ends.
Likewise, the production of wealth through virtuous work is a good in itself. The sin comes in spending the gained wealth on our pleasure and comfort, rather than spending it for the sake of love: for the love of others and of God.
The American Dream is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A life whose goal is 2.5 children and a spacious ranch house in the suburbs looks essentially different from a life whose goal is eternal communion with Jesus Christ and his saints. Bourgeois Christianity that regards more than two kids as “unrealistic” because they are “too expensive,” that thinks $20 in the offering plate is a favor to God, that can’t be bothered with a homily longer than 10 minutes are a mass longer than 60, that is repulsed by the idea of the religious life for oneself or one’s children, is really a form of unconverted Christianity, which is no Christianity at all.
Wealth is given to us to be spent for love, which often means for the alleviation of the suffering of the poor. But we also remember that the greatest poverty is spiritual poverty, and that man does not live by bread alone but by the word of God (Mt. 4:4). Moreover, bread that perishes is not as necessary as bread “which endures to eternal life,” which is the flesh of Christ (John 6:27,51). So we also spend our wealth to support the material needs of the Church, the one institution capable of alleviating spiritual poverty. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prov. 19:17), but let’s not forget that profound spiritual poverty is everywhere, and therefore it is not right for the Church to “give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). The early Church inspires us, who “were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need … And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).