The word “vanity” has come to mean “excessive belief in your own abilities or your attractiveness to others.” But the original meaning of the word, the one that makes sense of the First Reading, was “empty or valueless.” “In vain” comes closer to the meaning.
So when Qoheleth, the presumed author of the First Reading, says, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity," he means that everything we do is in vain. This is like a statement of despair. Likely he would be diagnosed today with depression.
Truth is, human beings are fashioned in such a way that we can open up to the source and summit of all love, God.
At the bottom of our hearts, maybe you or I would be tempted to say the same thing. When the beer commercials tell us “it doesn’t get any better than this,” illustrating people as they drink way too much, always having great smiles on their faces, we have to wonder if maybe there is something more to live for than this.
So let us ask whether the First Reading is correct, that our lives are truly “in vain.”
That reading gives a dark answer.
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 their occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.
Do you recognize this state?
Is your life devoted to riches or looking good? Are you one of those who is dedicated to “the bottom line,” to fighting for wealth so you will have something to live for? Qoheleth says you seek these things in vain. Maybe you should listen to him. Maybe you should stop ignoring the poor, for instance.
Look at the Gospel. There Jesus says, succinctly, that your life cannot consist of possessions even though you may have them. He tells the famous parable about a very rich man who produces a huge harvest one year and is busy tearing down his barns to build still larger ones. He wants to hoard more.
Maybe that is the reasonable way to live! We can see the same thing all through the Americanized cultures. We construct flashier buildings in our cities even while drugs and poverty beset our very lives. We say that values are unnecessary. We use other people to get what we want. Just like the man in Jesus’ story. Just like what Qoheleth calls “vanity.”
This particular rich man got a nasty surprise as he decided to eat, drink and be merry. 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.
“You fool!” Could this word be said of you or me? Whether we are rich or poor, are we trying to hoard what we have? Are we being children of God or children of mammon?
Truth is, human beings are fashioned in such a way that we can open up to the source and summit of all love, God. This is the one thing that makes life worth living. If we cannot see over the piles of possessions we have (or wish we had), our honors and gains are in vain.
If death were on its way to you this very night, what would God say to you?
John Foley, SJ
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