Years back, I led a group of senior citizens at Wednesday night Bible study. We selected the entire book of Ecclesiastes to work our way through. You might find it a bit morose, this book of Ecclesiastes. The narrator, called “the Preacher” or “Teacher,” wanders through the world, decrying that all is vanity.
No matter the achievements, no matter the fortunes, no matter the fame, all things are found lacking. The narrator says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…the narrator of Ecclesiastes must be fun at parties!
Reading Ecclesiastes with the senior citizen group, however, was a deep experience. Together with a group of folks who have lived long years and seen much along the way, I discovered Ecclesiastes as that sort of deep wisdom that only becomes clear after you have lived a bit. Life can seem a series of disasters tinged with occasional success, or closed doors suddenly open, then shut, and then open again, and Ecclesiastes moves with such realization about life. There is nothing new, no use trying to be more than human. You will fail; you will triumph. Do not get failure or success confused with divine favor or disproval. Life will be life.
In the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” the story of a deeply dysfunctional family unfolds as they undertake a road trip across the country. The young daughter has an opportunity to achieve something: participating in a pageant for little girls. The family struggles to get there, as much with the van (that they wind up having to push to start up each time the engine is turned off) as they do with dealing with being in close quarters with one another.
Indeed, the juxtaposition of the film’s title with its characters cannot be more apt, reinforced by one of the opening shots: a close-up of the character portrayed by comedian Steve Carell, a man who is quite miserable, suicidal, and feels as if life has lost its meaning, staring into the nothingness in a mental ward. As he stares, the title appears: “Little Miss Sunshine.” The man is a leading literary scholar, yet his career, love life, and will to live have been eclipsed by a run of misfortune and his own increasing gloom and bitterness.
Ecclesiastes could provide this moment’s narration: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For 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” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23).
If you read Ecclesiastes 2, you encounter the long experiment with excess that the narrator of Ecclesiastes tries out: power, wealth, possessions. All these things are in his grasp, yet he feels like he is empty. “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.” Also, in its wanderings through the gloom of life, Ecclesiastes points toward something greater than this unending folly of human life. For every reference to the futility of human life, there is an affirmation of life with God. The folly is seen as seductive, and the wise path is found for those who eschew the excessiveness.
Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus tells of a wealthy farmer who sees his crops reaching record yields and therefore, he begins dreaming of more barns to store up his bounty (Luke 12:13-21). To Jesus’ first-century listeners, the context of this parable matters greatly. Among people who rarely if ever owned property, a farmer who had so much abundance was not heard as “success.” It was yet another example of the proverbial “one percent” being exploitative. That the rich farmer dies that night is not a tragedy to Jesus’ audience. As terrible as this may sound to the modern listener, it may very well be a sign of God’s justice.
The pragmatic critique of Ecclesiastes and the social criticism embedded within the world of Jesus’ parables resound in our own day. The beauty of life is not found in possessions or any other insular hedonisms of your choosing. As Thoreau writes, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”[i] Or as Jesus warns, do not store up for yourself and be not rich toward God.
The narrator of Ecclesiastes and the parable-spinner Christ beckon to us where we sit in the pews. We hear these words, and perhaps they indict, or they liberate. Only you will know where these words count the most in your heart. But, whether through film or Scripture, we see yet again that there is a luminous grace that surrounds us, something that makes the heart feel close to bursting.
The burdens of the day or along life’s long journey, the need for control fueled by our quiet desperation, are unmasked as vanity upon vanity. For those willing to look closely, even beyond themselves, there is wisdom that points to a life that is indeed good, and a faith that is far richer than any possession.
The old gospel hymn comes to mind, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of [God’s] glory and grace.”
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
[i] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co, 1910, p. 8.
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