Sinners and Saints

Text: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-26
Date: Pentecost XI + Proper 13C + 7/31/16

Martin Luther said the book of Ecclesiastes “is one of the more difficult books in all of Scripture, one which no one has ever completely mastered.”[1] Of course then we should not be surprised that he did! For he saw the purpose, summary and aim of the author, namely, “Solomon wants to put us at peace and to give us a quiet mind in the everyday affairs and business of this life, so that we live contentedly in the present without care and yearning about the future and are, as Paul says, without care and anxiety (Phil. 4:6).” This is what is behind our Lord’s parable of the rich fool, namely, the difference between trying to lay up treasure for yourself and not being rich toward God.

The great king Solomon refers to himself as qoheleth translated “Preacher” or “leader of the assembly.” The Greek word for assembly is ecclesia hence the name Ecclesiastes.

St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” So Solomon is not saying that goods and possessions of this creation are necessarily at all good or bad in themselves. This is to be our proper relationship with and use of the creation and our possessions. They all come to us as gifts of God not as if we have created anything. Yet “the Preacher” is warning us this is the very mistake we make when we become anxious or concerned over accumulating “riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever,” which, of course, we’re not.

“Of course”? And isn’t that the real thing that bothers us, that we’re not going to live here “under the sun” in this sinful world forever. Hence the conclusion, “you can’t take it with you.” The day comes inevitably to all, when God says, “This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Lk 12:20). Whether He addresses you as “Fool” or “Friend” depends on your hearing of God’s Word now with the reception of faith that discovers the new birth and deliverance from sin and the promised prospect of life beyond the grave. For the mystery is that the grave is still there for believers and unbelievers alike. “The wages of sin is death.” Yet the new birth of God determines whether death and the grave are something to be feared or that have been transformed for us by faith in the resurrection of Christ, transformed to be but the gate to our joyful resurrection.

This book instructs us so that with thanksgiving we may use things, creatures and possessions as gifts graciously given to us by the blessings of God. Luther describes the vanity of life, saying, “We are always looking for something that is lacking, and we despise what is present.” Then he illustrates, saying, “When a man does not have a wife, he looks for one; when he has one, he becomes bored with her.” So is the vanity of the human heart, “which enjoys neither present nor future goods; it does not acknowledge or give thanks for the blessings it has received, and it vainly pursues the things it does not have.”

When the Preacher says, “Vanity of vanities” he means to talk about the greatest and highest vanity of all, total and utter vanity. But he begins with himself speaking of his own experience and example of vanity. “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven…. I have seen everything that is done under the sun,” that is in this life and world, “and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind,” that is, superficial, fleeting, unsubstantial, fruitless. Apart from the Lord, as we all are or were because of the separation of sin, life is empty. Wind can be used as in sails on a boat or turbines to produce electricity, but it can never be caught. Life apart from the Lord is chasing after something that cannot be captured.

It is interesting that the point of Ecclesiastes sounds much like the conclusion of the rich fool in Jesus’ parable. The rich fool hordes his possessions and concludes, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But the Preacher says, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” The difference, of course, is the rich fool relies on his possessions taking all the glory for himself for this life only. Solomon speaks of the pleasures and labors that God gives as being good and are to be used for this life without anxiety about the future.

“For to the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.” The joy comes from being content with things that are present and not troubled with their temporary nature. “What sinners heap up belongs to the saints because only they use it with thanksgiving and joy, even when they have very little.” Saints truly possess the whole world, because they enjoy it by faith in God with happiness and tranquility. Sinners do not possess it even when they have it. This is vanity of vanities compared to the life of faith, informed and enlivened by the true wisdom, God’s Word.

[1] All quotes from Luther, M. 1999, c1972. Luther’s works, vol. 15:Ecclesiastes Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis.