Given by David Teall
1st August 2010
We don’t have readings from the Book of Ecclesiastes very often yet I suspect that many of you here know the words of Chapter 3 by heart. They were turned into the folk song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ by Pete Seeger in 1939 and later became a number 1 hit for the Byrds. Felicity will be singing the song during our communion this morning.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth as it is called in the Hebrew Bible, begins one verse earlier than our set reading this morning. The missing verse says: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” These words were traditionally taken to identify the author as Solomon but scholars are now agreed that the book was written by a later author who used this introduction as a literary device to claim the wisdom associated with Solomon.
To understand what The Teacher is trying to tell us we must first consider his use of the word ‘vanity’. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word hebel from which this is translated is ‘a breath of wind’. The Teacher uses this word as a metaphor to indicate transience, uselessness or deceptiveness.
Looking at our reading again with this in mind The Teacher does appear to be a bit of an old misery. If he were going to appear on a television show today it could only be on Grumpy Old Men. A few years ago maybe he could have taken the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s army: “We’re all doomed – doomed!” Or maybe, for those of you whose memories go back a little further, he could have been Senna the soothsayer In Frankie Howard’s Up Pompeii: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”
The depressing outlook of the Teacher has, at times, caused some to question the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible as a book of Holy Scripture. However, careful reading of the whole book does reveal two important conclusions of the Teacher:
- We must accept our lot and enjoy the gifts that God has given us: our work, our food and our drink.
- We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.
Moving on to our Gospel reading: on first reading, the Rich Fool in Luke’s telling of the parable was being eminently sensible. There had been a good harvest and, rather than let the food go to waste, he thought he would build some larger barns to keep it in. Surely this was a praiseworthy thing to do? Did not Joseph do much the same thing in Egypt fifteen hundred years or so earlier, and he was revered as a hero?
What is more, surely the Rich Fool was only doing what The Teacher in Ecclesiastes had recommended: he was accepting his lot (the good harvest) and resolving to enjoy the gifts that God had given him?
So where did he go wrong? Why, in the parable, did God round on him and call him a fool? It was because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second: “We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.” There was no thought of God’s commandments in his proposal: it was entirely selfish. He just wanted to put his feet up, eat, drink and be merry.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with his proposal to build bigger barns: it was his reason for doing so that was wrong. He wanted to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason and with no regard to God. As Ella Fitzgerald and later Bananarama might have said if they were being more biblical: “It ain’t what you do – it’s the reason that you do it.”
Ecclesiastes took 12 chapters and an awful lot of groaning and moaning to reach his conclusions. Jesus summed them up in a sentence: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
“Rich toward God.” That is the key to the lesson from these two readings, but what exactly does it mean? That’s not an easy question to answer in just a few minutes, but I can give you a few pointers. It is to do with the value we place upon God and upon our resolve to follow his commandments. It is about what we can give to Him and what we will allow Him to give to us. It is about what we are prepared to do to help build His Kingdom here on earth. “Thy Kingdom come” we repeat every time we say the Lord’s Prayer but just what are we prepared to do to help to build it? Being “Rich toward God” involves our whole life, our whole being. It is about everything that we do and, as we have learnt from today’s parable, our motivation for doing it.
To return to our readings, and to link them together, the rich fool was chastised by God because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second. He was happy to accept God’s gift of a bountiful harvest but he was not prepared to be Rich toward God.
To express that using two different words, one of which we hear a great deal of these days: he wanted what he saw as his rights (what God had promised him) without his responsibilities (what he had promised God). As Frank Sinatra once sang (and I promise this is my last song quote!) “You can’t have one without the other”.
Though the message is clear, we human beings are very slow learners indeed when it comes to this lesson. We want the Government to provide more services but we don’t want to pay more tax. Trades Unions want more money for their members without regard for the profitability of their company. Citizens demand their Human Rights with no mention at all of their Human Responsibilities. Without a doubt, if I could change just one law in this country, high on my list would be to sweep away the Bill of Human Rights and replace it with a Bill of Human Rights and Responsibilities. For each ‘right’ I would like to see stated the ‘responsibilities’ that go with that right: you can’t have one without the other. For example:
The Right of Free Expression imposes, both on the media and all of us as individuals, a responsibility to be polite and civil and to be absolutely certain of our facts before expressing our views.
The Right to Free Assembly imposes upon us the responsibility to behave in a calm and peaceful way and not to use the might of the crowd to intimidate others who do not share our view.
The Right to own Property imposes upon us the responsibility to respect the property of others.
The Right to a School Education imposes upon the children who receive it the responsibility to respect their teachers, to behave well in class and to do the work they are set.
We often hear politicians condemning this country or that because of their ‘poor human rights record’. I have no quarrel with that as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. Whether they acknowledge it or not, what the politicians are judging is the extent to which the country in question has built, or is building God’s Kingdom here on earth. As we have learnt from our readings today that can only be achieved by being ‘Rich toward God’ and all that that entails.
In our prayers today, and every day, let us ask God “How rich am I toward you?’ and be prepared to listen to the answer. Amen