The National Catholic Review
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Aug. 1, 2004
Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

At first glance, this well known saying from the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes sounds very pessimistic. Some might say that the rest of the book gets even worse. However, such an evaluation is a misreading of a very sobering yet genuine perspective on life pursuits, but not on life itself. This phrase from the ancient sage, the responsorial psalm for today, and the story in the Gospel all underscore what we know so well from experience: Everything and everyone is “here today and gone tomorrow.” Therefore, the meaning of life cannot be found in possessions.

This is a hard saying in a world like ours, where our personal value is often measured by the extent and quality of what we possess. Those who are admired are those who have money; those who have power are those who have money; those who set the standard are those who have money. But it does not last. Qoheleth, the teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes, says that this is all vanity. The Hebrew word that is used might be better translated “lacking in substance.” The admiration of others, power, and influence all lack substance. They are here today and gone tomorrow.

Paul directs our attention to those treasures that endure. He admonishes us to seek what is above. What does all this really mean in the everyday events of life? Actually, Paul’s exhortation to put to death “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires, and the greed that is idolatry,” and to “stop lying to one another” hits home as if he had our modern world in mind when he first spoke these words. Our culture caters to our desire for immediate gratification; it encourages us to amass possessions; and in so many ways it thrives on deceit.

Baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul reminds us that with Jesus, we died to a life “lacking in substance,” and we were raised with him to a new life, a life with substance. We “have put on a new self, which is being the image of its creator.” Power and influence and possessions come and go, but this new self will endure because it is grounded in the power of the risen Lord. We live moral and upright lives in a world that fosters immorality of every kind; we are generous with our possessions, our time and ourselves in a world that applauds greed and selfishness; we are honest in our dealings with each other in a world devoured by every form of deceit.

So many of the pursuits of life today are vain, empty and lacking in substance. If we look deep into ourselves, we will realize this. We will see that we have been made for “what is above.” The desires of the human heart cannot be satisfied by what is here today and gone tomorrow.

Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., is professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Readings: Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23; Ps 90:3-6, 12-17; Col 3:1-5, 9-11; Lk 12:13-21

• Spend time reflecting on some of the blessings you have already received from God.

• Thank God for the beauty of the world in which you live and for the love of the people in your life.

• How much value do you place on things in your life that will not endure? Ask for the grace to change this.

Recently by Dianne Bergant

The Bible Reborn (March 12, 2014)
Novenas (April 7, 2003)
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