The Preacher, Qoheleth, says that “all things are vanity!” His intent is not, I think, to be cynical, though Qoheleth can provoke this among the world-weary. His wisdom is rather the product of a hard-boiled realism, which knows the truth of desires and ambitions that often consume us. He speaks of the shortness of life and the ambitions that have driven us, only to have found them unsatisfying. “Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune.” Does this reality bother you? Make you sad? “This also is vanity.”
Here is the wisdom of this ancient Sam Spade in a nutshell: the things you thought would make you happy probably will not. And if they do make you happy, it will be for only a short while because soon you will die. What seem like the musings of a melancholic scribe, however, are transformed into a bracing wake-up call for those with their eye on the living God. Vanity is vanity, but those who act with God in mind and heart know that their desires and ambitions can be transformed from that which consumes them to that which awakens them to truth.
In the Gospel of Luke, someone makes a request of Jesus that on the surface seems like a reasonable request to make of a teacher known for his wisdom: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus’ reply evinces more of Qoheleth than might initially be apparent, as he gets behind the request for equality to a desire for things that indi cate a life in tune with vanity, not with God. Jesus warns the peti tioner, and through him all of us, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The bluntness of Jesus’ response is still bracing—a statement we ought to repeat quietly to ourselves anytime we become convinced we need more money and possessions.
Jesus then tells a parable, his way of speaking across time to every class, gender and generation, about a rich man. The rich man had land that “produced abundantly.” In thinking rationally about the situation, the rich man decided to expand his operations, so he determined to “pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” It is hard to see much wrong with this plan of action. His crops were successful; he needed bigger barns, so he planned to build bigger barns. The parable, found only in Luke, gives us a significant clue, though, as to why this rich man’s plans are evidence of vanity and not just good planning.
Considering his plans for new barns to house his abundant crop, the rich man said, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” One word here opens us up to his foolish vanity and to a vanity so many of us do battle with regularly: soul (psyche). He was not vain because he had many physical goods and would have his earthly needs cared for—God knows we need these things—but because he equated his financial success and security with the well-being of his soul. The fool saw his goods as his alone, not as the product of God’s bounty intended for him but also for all who are in need. In the parable he twice addresses his soul’s health and mistakes his success on earth for his eternal wellbeing. It is because of this basic confusion that God in the parable said to him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” We could easily add to the parable a closing epitaph: “This also is vanity.”
This life offers numerous paths, and we all must travel one with greater or less success according to the standards of this world. It is not the fact that we must travel a path that creates a fog of vanity, but that we see our earthly rewards as the measure of our life, storing up physical treasures and thinking they purify our souls, while God is asking us to be rich to those in need and rich in the ways of God.