Today’s Scripture Readings
Ecclesiastes presents a challenge to us today. This book doesn’t sound like it belongs in a book about God. It is part of what we call the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. There are five Wisdom books: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and Wisdom. They are different from most Old Testament books because they don’t talk about Israel’s traditions, no promises from God, no exodus or covenant here. Instead what we hear are statements of experience in this world, practical advice. The authors believe in God but they are taking their cues from life’s experiences.
In Ecclesiastes this advice is sharply negative. Nothing changes, there seems to be little sense in trying to accomplish anything because you won’t be able to change anything and even if you do, no one will remember you for it. That isn’t what we usually hear in either the Old or New Testaments. Yet here it is in the Bible as the word of God.
The verses we read this morning are powerful and several have become common recognizable complaints in today’s world. Haven’t we heard, “There is ‘Nothing new under the sun.’” and “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.” They question why people should work because nothing ever changes. The world stays the same no matter what we do.
How do we square this with Christianity’s emphasis on doing what is right, helping others and sacrificing for the sake of change? We believe God wants us to be happy and lead productive, meaningful lives that make a difference in how the world operates. How does Ecclesiastes fit with that?
Ecclesiastes keeps us grounded in experience, the real world. For all the rapid change that is happening in today’s world, cell phones, social networking on the internet, great medical breakthroughs, better understanding of how human beings learn, the list could be endless, aren’t there just as many things that have never changed. We still have countries going to war, neighbors and family members who can’t get along, people who are poor and don’t have enough to eat, winters that are too cold, summers that are too hot, underdog teams that seem to overcome all obstacles to win.
So is this a world of change or a world that stays the same? Yes.
In fact, don’t we have both? Ecclesiastes is here to remind us to not get too goody two shoes about life and our ability to fix everything. In a society that is obsessed with success, accomplishments and working as many hours as it takes, isn’t it a good caution to hear the question, “What profit has a man from all the labor he toils under the sun?”
I think it can be too easy to accept any single line of thinking. The common wisdom is no guarantor of the best or even correct path. We have to be careful not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of the latest idea or solution. We have to be dreadfully honest with ourselves about what really happens when we continue old traditions with which we have become comfortable. Ecclesiastes suggests we have to be in touch with what is really happening in any given situation. We have to pay attention to where the rivers go, how the winds blow, and where the sun sets.
Why? Because that’s how we encounter God’s presence in this world. God shows God’s self to us in what is really going on, not what we’d like to see or hear. What’s really happening for us in our relationships and what’s really happening to people in the challenges that society faces is where we meet God. We can’t sugar coat the stuff of life if we expect to recognize and act on what God desires.
Interestingly, Herod had it right in our Gospel today. He knew he couldn’t listen to what was being said about Jesus. He knew this person wasn’t John the Baptist. He had to keep trying to see Jesus. We know eventually Herod didn’t like what he saw but he was smart enough to know he had to go see Jesus for himself.
We have to see and hear for ourselves. Really see and listen to what our life presents. It is the only way to be in touch with Jesus for ourselves.