HEBEL is one of the central concepts in Ecclesiastes. Its literal meaning is “vapour”, and most versions translate it as “vanity”. In scripture, the word is frequently used in association with idolatry: the worship of ephemeral things, or imaginary deities. The Teacher’s message is that, without God, “everything under the sun” is as insignificant as vapour.
While we are warned not to set our hearts on things that are “under the sun”, those same things are celebrated as gifts of a benevolent Creator (Ecclesiastes 3.14). “The underlying compatibility of these emphases lies in understanding the good purpose of the divine gifts: they are to bring temporary delight as they lead toward grateful praise of our Creator and thereby toward true and permanent joy” (Daniel Trenier, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). It is when the good things of Creation become objects to be manipulated for our individual advantage that our attitude towards them becomes “idolatry” (a word our epistle specifically applies to the sin of avarice).
The parable of the rich fool offers a devastating satire on the self-enclosed attitude of the avaricious. As St Augustine explains, the fool’s disregard of God and neighbour are intertwined. “He was hoarding perishable crops, while he was himself on the point of perishing because he handed out nothing to the Lord before whom he was now to appear. How will he know where to look, when at that trial he starts hearing the words, ‘I was hungry and you did not give me to eat’?” Augustine concludes that the fool “did not realise that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns”.
Idolatry, although first and foremost an offence against God, is most damaging to the idolater. In Anna Rowlands’s words, those whose lives are given over to the accumulation of wealth have a “distorted understanding of their own self-interest”. To make an idol of wealth is “vanity”, because it distracts us from the common good without the context in which any apparently private goods are not sustainable or spiritually fruitful, and most of all from God (who both contains and surpasses all these other goods).
Jesus tells the parable in response to “someone in the crowd”, who cries out “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” It is a depressing vignette: Jesus has been demonstrating the power of God in both words and deeds, and the response of this man is to seek to harness this power for his own selfish ends. The Lord’s response may seem surprisingly harsh: he refuses to intervene, and his use of the vocative “man” (anthrope) may indicate a certain harshness of tone (David Lyle Jeffrey, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
As Justo González observes, this man in the crowd is exhibiting another, more insidious, form of idolatry. “Even though it is true that in being overly concerned with material wealth the man in the story errs, it is also true that underlying that error is an even greater one: trying to use the power and authority of Jesus to get what he wants.” The love of material things does not simply usurp God in his affections. Rather, avarice leads this man to replace the true God with a deity of his own imagining — a deity whose purpose is to fulfil his selfish desires, not to reorient them to his true good.
González notes that, throughout Christian history, the greatest challenge before the Church has not been persecution or disbelief, but “Christopaganism”: a form of Christianity which seeks to refashion God according to our agendas and appetites. Instead of opening us to grace and transforming our desires, its rites and practices are misunderstood as techniques to bend God’s will to our own (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
Paul is contending with this same distortion of the Christian Gospel in Colossae. The epistle is “deeply concerned with the rites and practices that purport to provide spiritual benefit” but are “bound up in limited, earthly existence” (Margaret MacDonald, Sacra Pagina: Colossians and Ephesians). The only antidote to such “Christopaganism” is the one that Paul commends to the Colossians. They — and we — must remember that, in baptism, we have died to vain and self-enclosed desires. Our hearts are being “renewed” and redirected to all that is of true and lasting value; so that “Christ is all and in all.”