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18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!”  These are the words that open our first reading this Sunday, and are a stark reminder of what should hold importance for us as we live our lives.  While we may be familiar with the saying, and my give credence to the sentiment, our modern lives are often mired in vanity, and we can use a sharp reminder as to what is really important:

The Word for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

Our first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The word “Ecclesiastes” is a rough Greek translation of the word of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, to whom the book is attributed.  This is not so much a name of someone, however, as it is a title… that is the “assembler” or “collector” of wisdom.  Like all wisdom literature in the Bible, this book is a collection of sayings and parables intended to remind us of what is important.  Here the author uses the word “vanity” as a recurring theme… but what is vanity?  In this case, it’s the translation of the Hebrew word “hebel,” which is defined as a sense of “emptiness, futility, or absurdity.”  In other words, those things that are pointless.  Also in the context of scripture it refers to those things or activities that are selfishly temporal, focusing on physical wealth or status as opposed to spiritual salvation. 

In our passage for this Sunday we are reminded that there are greater things than just working to survive.  It suggests that we can get so caught in our day-to-day routine that we can find ourselves wondering what this is all for?  Why are we doing it?  If that were not enough, the author suggests that this “poor, poor, pitiful me” realization is itself an exercise in vanity.  Why?  Well, we’ve been told, over and over again, what should be important… our relationship to God, our family, and our neighbors.  But we children of God can be a stubborn lot, not always ready to accept this teaching.  To this problem our Psalm reminds us, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.”

Our Gospel from Luke continues on this idea of vanity and of what is really important in this life.  Here Jesus gives us a warning against greed and earthly possessions.  The passage opens with a man asking Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance.  This is indeed an interesting situation.  By Jewish tradition, the eldest son inherits everything, so naturally the brother is feeling slighted.  Jesus has preached on the importance of sharing, so this man thinks his brother needs to hear this lesson from Jesus.  But Jesus doesn’t take the bait stating instead “who appointed me as your judge?”  Jesus rightly does not want to get caught up in this dispute, and instead gives the crown an admonition against greed.  He then supports this idea with the Parable of the Rich Fool (unique to Luke’s Gospel) which reminds us that our preoccupation with storing up Earthly riches does not prepare us for eternal life.

Our second reading concludes our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Here Paul puts this whole situation in perspective by reminding us that we need to “seek what is above.”  He says “put to death the parts of you that are earthy.”  Vanity of vanities indeed!  Never lose sight of the fact that our time on this earth is all too brief and shouldn’t be squandered on things that, in the end, can’t bring us to Heaven.

Final thoughts:

Our modern society teaches that money can bring happiness.  Is that true?  After all, with money we can secure those things that are often a source of stress… be it food, shelter, healthcare, leisure, or freedom.  While studies have shown money is a factor in happiness, those same studies have also showed that it was then non-material things that provided more happiness.  Our personal well-being and our relationships with others.  Further, studies have shown that those who attend religious services on a weekly basis were happier overall when compared to those who attended less often.

It seems to me that these studies only prove that the wisdom of Qoheleth is just as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago.  Jesus was right to teach us that physical wealth cannot bring us happiness or eternal life.  Rather, it is our relationship with God and with others that is more important.  Our lives here on Earth are, after all, only temporary.  Understanding that bigger picture helps us to see that there is much more to life, both here and beyond.


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