“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity”! Today begin with our First Reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes in which the Prophet declares that all is vanity. What is the definition of “vanity”? Webster’s dictionary says it means “pride”. The original meaning of “vanity” as used in the readings: “an excessive belief in one’s own beauty or personal ability”; something that is “empty or valueless”, fleeting, like a vapor. The English term “In vain” comes closer to this meaning used in the reading. When the Prophet Qoheleth says “vanity of vanities,” he means that everything is futile. For us this means that we should not place value in anything material since ultimately all material things will pass away. We cannot possess lasting security or peace. It is only the spiritual things which are eternal and therefore it is these in which we should place our trust.
The readings today could be referred to as any of these following expressions: You cant take it with you; Nobody gets out alive; He who dies with the most toys still dies; Do you own your stuff; or does your stuff own you?; There are two things that are guaranteed in life: Death and Taxes; or as Mark Twain once said, “There is no sense being the richest man in the cemetery.”
With the aforementioned background, let’s look at the first issue presented to Jesus in our gospel reading. It is dealing with inheritance issues and family. Have you ever tried to settle a money dispute or an inheritance issue? Inheritance disputes are never easy to resolve. Especially when the relatives or associates of the deceased cannot agree on who should get what and ultimately who should get the most. Why did Jesus refuse to settle an inheritance dispute between these two brothers? He saw that the heart of the issue was not justice or fairness but rather greed and possessiveness as we still see in most inheritance issues today.
It all boils down to loving possessions rather than loving our neighbor. The ten commandments were summarized into two prohibitions – do not worship false idols and do not covet what belongs to another. It’s the flip side of the two great commandments – love God and love your neighbor. Jesus warned the man who wanted half of his brother’s inheritance to “beware of all covetousness.” To covet is to wish to get wrongfully what another possesses. Jesus restates the commandment “do not covet”, but he also states that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions.
Jesus reinforces his point with a parable about a foolish rich man who has a bountiful harvest – a bumper crop (Luke 12:16-21). Why does Jesus call this wealthy landowner a fool? Jesus does not fault the rich man for being industrious and his skill in acquiring wealth.
He fault’s the man for his egotism and selfishness. The man falls into greed which is a form of pride. He says “my harvest”, “my barns”, “my grain”. He starts imagining paradise on earth: “rest, eat, drink and be merry”. He thinks that he had made it in life, not knowing that his soul would be demanded by God that very night. He doesn’t realize his life hangs by a thread. He may own a lot of grain but he doesn’t own his life. That night God demands his life like a creditor calling in a debt. A rich man can buy a lot of things but no one can purchase his own life. All things are vanity!
Unlike Joseph in Egypt he doesn’t think about how his good fortune can help others. The rich fool had lost the capacity to be concerned for others. His life was consumed with his possessions and his only interests were in himself. His death was the final loss of his soul! Remember Jesus’ lesson on using material possessions – “It is in giving that we receive”. With God we will receive ample reward – not only in this life – but in eternity as well.
Again and again in the Gospels we see that it is “attitude” that Jesus is most concerned about. If the man in the parable had been thanking God for his wealth and had taken some steps to share his good fortune with those in need then it would have been a very different story. Instead this man focusses his energy on acquiring wealth and storing it up for himself in order that he will have security for the future so that he can then live a life of leisure. He gives no thought to God or to his less fortunate neighbor. St Paul picks up the theme of this life’s vanity. “Seek what is above,” says Paul, “(not) what is on earth.” Material things are good and necessary. They can, however, become idols – substitutes for God. The heart of Jesus’ teaching has always been the idea that our true fulfillment can only be found in heaven. We must realize that this world is transitory and that while we are in it we should be doing all we can to secure our place in eternity.
I have gotten to point in my life where I start looking back on life as well as forward. Some of you might also be doing this. The question that we ask ourselves is: Has my life been a success? Actually, this question cannot be answered unless we can answer the deeper question of what is success? What is a successful life, a successful career, a successful relationship?
Is a person’s life successful if he or she is making a good salary? There’s a story about a grandmother who pulled out pictures of her three grandchildren, all under two, and showed them to a friend saying, “These are my grandchildren. That one’s the rich doctor, that one’s the rich lawyer and that one’s the chairman of the board of a large corporation.” Is success predicated on salary? That is the way that most people calculate success.
How about marriage? What makes a marriage successful? Is a marriage successful because a woman and a man have been together for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years and have avoided both divorce and homicide? Longevity does not determine the success of a marriage. A marriage is successful if the man or woman is a better person, a more loving person, because of the marriage.
How about parenting? What are the signs that people are good parents? Success in parenting is certainly not based on what your kids have, but who your kids are. Many parents are beginning to shop for school clothes. Some are shopping at Ross, Walmart, Kmart, or Target. Others might be shopping at the most exclusive stores in The valley. The cost of the clothes they are putting on their children has nothing to do with the success of their parenting. The success of their parenting is dependent on many factors but is evidenced in the decisions their children will make throughout their lives.
A doctor is not successful if they have a prosperous practice. They are successful they are the healing hands of Christ for the sick. A lawyer is not successful not if they have a profitable firm. They are successful if they use learning, knowledge and talent to protect, to do good, and be just for people and the community.
The readings today force us to take a closer look at the whole concept of success. In the Gospel reading, the man is convinced that he is successful because he is a rich farmer. What should he do now that he has succeeded in harvesting more grain than he has storage room? Build a bigger barn, of course. The only thing is, the basis of his success is his grain. When he suddenly dies, his success remains here, and he goes on to God empty handed.
The whole mind set of success is predicated on what we own. This is based on a fallacy that was very clear in the first reading. He is sometimes called Qoheleth, or the Prophet. This book from the Hebrew Scriptures is the very insightful and difficult book. “Vanity of vanities,” says Qoheleth, “All is vanity.” Qoheleth’s point is that the only real values are the spiritual values. The early Christians loved this book of the Hebrew Scriptures because it helped them remain focused on the reason for their existence.
The general concept of success is a fallacy. Success is not predicated on what we have, what honors we receive, what jobs we hold, etc. Success is predicated on how each of us has developed as a person. Success is predicated on our ability to assume the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul says that our lives are hidden with Christ in God in such a way that when Christ appears, we appear. The personality of a Christian is so entwined with the person of Jesus Christ that Christ and the Christian, and Christ in the Christian, must be one. That is success.
Success, true success, is never that which we have obtained. This is a completely different way of considering success. Success is not a present reality, it is a goal, the goal of Christian life. This goal will be reached when every aspect of our lives reflects the Person of Jesus Christ. That is success. All else is vanity!