Our daily readings for today (22 September, Thursday of the 25th Week of Ordinary Time) open with the famous opening to the book of Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
If this sounds familiar, it should... it was the opening passage for our readings back on July 31st (the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time).
I don't normally comment on the daily readings, but this morning my wife, who follows the daily meditations from Give Us This Day thought I would be interested in their commentary for today's first reading. In it, the author noted how we are more likely to scramble for money tossed on the ground than we are to scramble for the gift of eternal life. Going to extraordinary effort to grab at the shiny thing in front of us, instead of looking to things that are more important. Spending our time with Twitter and Facebook instead of reading a book. Investing in Lotto tickets instead of a savings account. Fighting over that item on sale on Black Friday instead of pausing to ask yourself if you even need it in the first place. It was an excellent commentary, so relevant to our times... yet written in the 12th century CE. It was a stinging indictment of a society obsessed with the here-and-now while being oblivious to the even greater riches that could be theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.
When it comes to Bible, or as also in this case, Medieval commentaries on the Bible, I hear a lot of voices dismissing them because they don't find them relevant to our times. Guess what... look again. For all the advancement and knowledge that we've gained, not only since this commentary was written but since the book of Ecclesiastes was written, we still have much to learn.
We, as a people and a society, tend to get too distracted by what's being thrown in front of us. We can spend copious amounts of time and effort on things, that at the end of the day, don't really mean anything. Don't advance our lives. Don't make our lives better for the long term.
When discussing this commentary this morning, I also likened it to a football game ('tis the season, after all). Football, the connoisseurs will tell you, is a game of inches. Just like life. You tackle the problem that's right in front of you and move on to the next. Good advice, and it made for a very inspiring speech in the film On Any Given Sunday, but here's the thing... this vision is incomplete. What's the goal? Yes, each play you make, each yard you gain, is important, but you also have to consider "the long game." The bigger picture. It doesn't matter what sport... Football, baseball, chess. Sometimes a sacrifice is acceptable or even needed if it gives you an advantage later in the game. In the business world we call it sacrificing short term profits for long term gains.
Fighting for every inch is important, but if you don't stop and consider the bigger picture, the importance of the end result, you could find yourself marching down the field in the wrong direction. And sometimes when the ground game isn't working, you need to put the ball in the air. Take a risk. They don't call it a "hail Mary" pass for nothing.
Much of the book of Ecclesiastes is intent on reminding us not to get distracted with the mundane or pointless because it will lead us nowhere. The word "vanity" is translated from the Hebrew hebel, which is defined as a sense of “emptiness, futility, absurdity.” Are we spending our lives on hebel, or are we spending them advancing toward our goals? Are we keeping our eyes on the prize of eternal life? But even worse... are we even looking?
All too often we avoid looking at the big picture. Eternal life. That's so big. That's so far away. I'm so busy I can't even begin to think about that right now. I hear it all the time... and not just about eternal life, but about life in general. Unfortunately, that type of denial can also lead us astray, both spiritually and physically. We need to find the strength, with the help of friends, family, and the Holy Spirit, to pause and look at the bigger picture. Only then can we be sure that the steps of our daily lives are moving us to that eternal goal. And all else is hebel.