The word “vanity” is featured, famously, in this week’s readings. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity”!
But what in the world does the word vanity mean in this passage? Today’s English has made it signify pride: “proud personal displays,” like a peacock. But the original meaning of the word is the one intended in our First Reading: something that is “empty or valueless,” fleeting, like a vapor. “In vain” comes closer to the meaning.*
So when Qoheleth, the presumed author of the First Reading, says “vanity of vanities,” what he means is that everything is futile. It is a statement of despair. Today, he would be diagnosed with depression.
Beer commercials show men and women guzzling beer and acting like teenagers, but telling us, “it doesn’t get any better than this.” It doesn’t? We admit “we can’t take it with us when we go,” but we do try, and we fail.
Would you concur that your life is “in vain”?
Or in other words, is the First Reading is actually true to life? It gives a dark picture.
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 his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.
How many lives in this country are devoted to riches and looking good and earning much and to being admired? Do we “labor under the sun” in order that we will have something to live for? Qoheleth says we seek such things in vain.
We should listen to him.
In the Gospel Jesus says succinctly that a human life does not consist of possessions.
A very rich man produced a huge harvest one year. He was busy tearing down his storage barns to build still larger ones so he could hoard more into them.
Remind you of anyone?
Well, we can see it throughout the Americanized cultures: larger and larger buildings, bigger and bigger fortunes, and the greatest compliments that sportscasters give an athlete, “he is the greatest in the history of … ” (name your sport). Qoheleth sees this as “vane.”
Success in sports is not bad. It is good. But do you or we or they live only for it?
The parable’s rich man got a nasty surprise as he was busy eating and drinking and being wild. 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?
Could such a remark could be addressed to you or me? Couldn’t God say “you fool” to our secret ambitions? Are we hoarding what we have, even if we are poor? At bottom are you and I amassing even our good deeds? Are we being children of God or children of mammon?
Truth is, all people are constructed so that they are able to be open to the source and summit of all love, God.
This is the one thing that makes life worth living.
If we can see out over our pile of possessions (or the ones we wish for), then every heap of honors and gains can be seen as simply vainglory.
Try it this way: if death were on its way to you this very night, what would you return to the loving God?