Proper 13, Year C
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Some people see the glass as half empty. Others see the glass as half full. Same glass. Same amount of water. Different perspectives.
But no matter how much water was in the glass, the author of our first reading would probably see it as completely empty.
"Vanity of vanities . . . All is vanity." Sometimes, everything we try to do and pursue in this life seems unattainable and insubstantial. The word translated as "vanity" in our reading also means vapor, or breath. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes would probably agree with James, who writes in his letter that our life is but "a mist" or "a vapor" that "appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). All is vanity. Everything is just like a formless vapor. Empty.
This reading gives us another great image of emptiness: life is like "a chasing after wind." Today we might say that this life is like getting caught up in the rat race or being stuck on a treadmill. If we can't find time to plan our lives and move toward goals, we say that we're just "putting out fires." But "chasing after wind" is also a great description: we'll never catch up, we don't set the course, and even if we do grasp at the tail end of that wind . . . we still come up empty-handed. We're getting nothing and going nowhere. What's the point? We have no sense of possibility or purpose.
The glass is totally empty.
And even when the glass appears to have a little bit of water in it, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes still sees it as empty. In today's reading, the Teacher actually does seem to be "getting ahead." He's accumulating at least some material goods. But here's the problem: he has no opportunity to enjoy the fruits of his labors. His glass is empty because his life is so full of busy-ness—of what he calls the "business that God has given to human beings to be busy with." His glass is empty because his mind is always full, even when he should be sleeping! He tells us that human beings spend their days full of anxiety, and "even at night their minds do not rest." So even if his glass were half full, it might as well be empty if there is no time or opportunity to enjoy that refreshing water.
And here's another problem: even if he has water in his glass, someone else will probably get to drink it, whether they deserve it or not. Even if his labor does generate some wealth, he doesn't have much to look forward to. As he says, "sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it." Maybe he is low on the totem pole in his place of employment. Maybe he is the head of a family who will inherit whatever he has worked for. So, even if his glass has water, it is empty to him, because someone else will drink it.
On the one hand, our reading from Ecclesiastes sounds pretty bleak. It may also sound pretty realistic. Maybe we have felt like we were chasing after a wind either for our whole lives or for a season of our lives—pursuing something futile and empty. But the reading sounds less hopeless when we put it in the context of a broader Biblical call to emptiness.
Take today's gospel reading. Jesus uses a parable to challenge people who think that the purpose of their life is to fill themselves up. A member of the crowd tries to put Jesus in a terrible position, asking him to resolve a dispute about a family's inheritance. Now, I don't know about you, but I do know of a few families whose bonds have been seriously damaged by fights about who inherits what and how much. Jesus wants no part in a mess like that. Instead, he warns people to be on their guard "against all kinds of greed." He says, "one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Life isn't about that achieving fullness.
He then tells a parable about a rich man with big problems. This man's field produced a bumper crop of grain, and he had no place to store it. So, he decided to tear down his small barns, build bigger barns, store everything in those big barns, and then sit back and "relax, eat, drink," and "be merry." He imagined his comfortable life stretching on for years.
He didn't realize that all this accumulation and this large increase in storage space was vanity. His life was like a vapor, about to end before he realized it. He thought he had fulfilled his purpose by filling his barns. But the gospel asks instead for emptiness.
In the very next verses after our reading from the gospel of Luke, Jesus goes on to describe the life of ravens and lilies. Unlike the rich landowner in the parable, the ravens "neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them" (Luke 12:24). Jesus asks his disciples to "strive for God's kingdom," and he assures them that they will receive everything else that they need.
God can work with emptiness. In our emptiness, we can receive God's gifts and inherit God's kingdom. But it's much harder for us to make room for the kingdom when we have full storehouses and barns.
And here's some good news about the emptiness that God asks us for: Emptiness doesn't need to be negative. Emptiness can be joyful. The rich man in today's parable actually misapplies some of the wisdom from Ecclesiastes. In fact, the encouragement to eat, drink, and be merry comes from Ecclesiastes. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes says, "I commend enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun" (8:15, New King James Version).
In Ecclesiastes, joy is a comfort in our daily life and work. We have nothing but the life and work that God has given us, and food, drink, and joy are also gifts. But the rich man thinks he has to wait until retirement to eat, drink, and be merry. His enjoyment is based on fullness. In Ecclesiastes, we can receive joy in the midst of emptiness.
I wonder how we can start to play with emptiness in our lives. How can we create empty spaces so that we can receive the gifts of God? Perhaps we can do what the Teacher in Ecclesiastes does: get our frustrations out, empty ourselves by speaking the truth about life as we see it. We can let go of whatever goals seem shallow, or whatever "wisdom" rings hollow.
In our spiritual lives, we can do more of what the Psalmist encourages: "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). We can leave some part of our day unplanned, and wide open, waiting to receive whatever God does next. We can recover some of the wonder and amazement of the disciples when they discovered the empty tomb. What did it mean? What would unfold from there in the future of God's people?
The empty tomb echoed with the good news that life is so much more than chasing after wind, motivated only by the tantalizing hope of gaining more and more. The empty tomb meant that life was not about accumulating and transferring our wealth. It was about inheriting the kingdom and transforming our lives.
"Vanity of vanities . . . All is vanity." All is empty. But we can explore and experiment with this emptiness. It gives us a place to start.
Our glass may be empty, but it is also ready to receive. Our cup just may overflow yet.