‘Vanity of vanities, the Preacher says, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” The Book of Ecclesiastes is an unremitting condemnation of the false hopes that so often drive a misplaced human optimism. The author seems to mock the pride of human achievement. What is the point of industrious labour if the fruits of that industry are inherited by the indolent? The catalogue becomes even more depressing. The author concludes that the whole of life is vanity, no more than chasing the wind.
The context of the Preacher’s pessimism reveals fascinating parallels with our own society.
The Book of Ecclesiastes emerged from a period of tremendous economic growth. The influence of the Persian Empire and its standardised currency presented unparalleled opportunities for growth and trade. For the first time money was king, an end in itself. The downside to this rapid expansion was the isolation of the individual. Although many benefited initially, they were powerless, the playthings of remote forces. Many today, experiencing the extreme consequences of recession, will be in agreement with the Preacher. Despite the diligence of a lifetime their efforts have come to nothing. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
This unremitting gloom was not without a purpose. It challenged the presumption that we can become our own security, that we are the authors of our own salvation. It moves us to the humble prayer of the responsorial psalm: “Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart. In the morning fill us with your love.”
The Gospel takes up the concerns highlighted by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Jesus refused to be drawn into a dispute concerning inheritance. He wanted nothing to do with the divisive claims that wealth generates. He warned his disciples: “Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.”
The admonition was followed by the familiar parable of the rich man whose new barn was the culmination of all his hopes. The philosophy of greed is evident in the rich man’s conclusion: “My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by; take things easy, eat, drink and have a good time.”
Jesus was relentless in his condemnation of wealth that is accumulated either at the expense of the poor, or in defiance of a humble dependence on God. “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul.”
Any path through the current recession must be based on the principles so clearly outlined in the Gospel. Wealth is a gift from God. It can never be stored up for ourselves, but must always be used to make ourselves rich in the presence of God and with the poor who rely on our help. Only in death did the parable confront the rich man with the consequences of his greed.
We are still free to choose. What will guide our path through the present recession: the desire to be rich in the presence of God or the vanity of acquisition at any price? We, and the leaders of our society, should be conscious of the teaching of Jesus in determining winners and losers in the debate concerning taxes and benefits.
St Paul, following in the footsteps of Jesus, described greed as the worship of a false god. What we have, like Christ himself, must become an enrichment for all.