Proper 13: Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23;
WEALTH is not a vice. Were it a vice, we would not be trying to make poverty history. The evil we are warned against is not wealth but greed. The word Luke uses — pleonexia — crops up regularly in the New Testament’s checklists of deadly sins (Mark 7.22; Romans 1.29; Ephesians 4.19; 5.3).
Take the word apart, and we find its root meaning. It is simply the desire to have more. The problem with pleonexia is that it is insatiable. Ancient writers saw pleonexia as the spiritual equivalent of the illness “dropsy”. Those with dropsy always craved more to drink, although the water they imbibed made them only worse.
Wealth is not wicked. As we saw a few Sundays ago, it was because the good Samaritan was well-off that he was able to do something for the one fallen by the roadside (Luke 10.25-37). In his book Is There a Gospel for the Rich? (Mowbray, 1997), Bishop Richard Harries argues that — notwithstanding the tale of “the rich young ruler” (Luke 18.18-30) — the economically successful are not barred from salvation. Nor should Christians feel a paralysing sense of guilt about benefiting from a market-based capitalist system. What matters about my whopping city bonus is what I do with it.
Richard Harries writes with the sobriety that befits his purple cloth. Richard North’s panegyric in praise of wealth Rich Is Beautiful: A very personal defence of mass affluence (The Social Affairs Unit, 2005) is headier stuff.
Mr North believes that wealth — “lots of it” — is lovely and good. This may not quite catch the drift of Sunday’s Gospel, but it would be a bad mistake not to give him a hearing. Mr North claims that there is a potential spiritual dimension to wealth creation. The perilous human condition is not the well-heeled life, but the unexamined life. Wealth is not wrong. Private equity can do public good. What is wrong is not making the wealth more widely available.
“Wealth is not wrong.” I am sure I would find that truth comforting if I were reading “the parable of the rich fool” on board my luxury yacht. I am worried that I find it equally reassuring, equally an endorsement of an easy lifestyle, in my more modest circumstances. In our Epistle this Sunday, Paul calls pleonexia “idolatry”.
An idol is anything — or anyone — other than Almighty God, in which or in whom, I find my ultimate security. That idol does not have to be a yacht. It need not be inordinately expensive. It is anything that I am reluctant to let go, though let it go I must on the night — tonight, maybe — when my soul, too, is required. The great Congregationalist scholar George Caird has wisely commented: “Wealth is a peril to those who have it, but also to those who do not.”
Our first reading is from a book we rarely turn to. The lectionary sends us to Ecclesiastes this Sunday, presumably because “Qoheleth”, the “preacher” behind this anonymous text, is as scathing of pleonexia — of wanting to have more and more — as ever Jesus or Paul were.
“Vanity of vanity,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity.” “Qoheleth” is a pen-name. It could just as well have been Eeyore, for our author’s world-view is unremittingly bleak. To capture the flavour of this extraordinary text, one should read it aloud slowly, sadly, and wearily — interspersing one’s delivery with the occasional deep melancholy sigh.
Ecclesiastes certainly supports our two New Testament readings in their condemnation of pleonexia. The trouble is that its indictment goes much further. Ecclesiastes passes the same judgement — “all is vanity” — on all human endeavour.
The sentence of death, passed on the property developer in Jesus’s parable, is written across everything we do. The life of the playboy plutocrat, says the Preacher, who makes himself the wealthiest man in Jerusalem, and who supposes he can take his concubines with him, is a striving after wind. But so, too, is a career spent in the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom.
Most commentaries on Ecclesiastes are a damage-limitation exercise. They point to the book’s “orthodox postscript” — “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14) — and find in it a counter-balance to the cynicism and world-weariness in which the rest of the book is steeped.
But Ecclesiastes does not have to depend on its pious conclusion to qualify as holy scripture. However tasteless, unfashionable, and unpalatable it is to do so, we need to remind ourselves occasionally of our mortality. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. Our life is “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4.14). So, too, are our structures, the Church of England among them. We shall soon be forgotten. We need to read Ecclesiastes more often. It, too, is the Word of the Lord.
Text of readings:
Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14; 2.18-23
2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
12I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. 14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
18I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – 19and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
1If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. 8But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
13Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15And he said to the crowd, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.‘” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’