For the full impact of today’s Gospel, we must understand it happened right when Jesus was in the middle of preaching to the crowds. This chapter begins: when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, [Jesus] began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Jesus then goes on to tell the crowds, and us, to fear God who has the power to cast into hell; He then gives the great comfort that God knows us and cares for us; and then He tells His disciples that they will be called upon to confess Him before people–even in front authorities–but they should not worry because the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. Great spiritual truths, warnings and comforts! In that background/ context comes our text: Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Where was this man’s mind? What was he thinking? He was in the crowd, by all outward appearances one who was listening to Jesus; but what was he doing? He was thinking about anything but what Jesus was saying. His only concern was what? – “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” He wanted nothing else of Jesus but earthly good; his eyes were only on the here and now, not the eternal and heavenly. Jesus quite clearly tells the man: Man, who appointed me to be a judge or an arbitrator over you? What this man was interested in was not what Jesus was preaching –the message of joy and peace with God, the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus refused to deal with these earthly affairs of those who did not want to hear His word–that’s what the government is for. He refuses those who want to use Him to bolster their own thoughts and positions, who try to make Jesus agree with them. Here, though, we must examine our own hearts and lives. How often do we desire Jesus not for the rich and abundant spiritual blessings He wants to give us–like forgiveness of sins, peace with God, eternal life–but for the earthly comfort and ease that we think we so richly deserve; to be healthy, wealthy and wise; that things work out how I want them to? So often, we are very much like that man–Jesus wants to give us forgiveness of sin, salvation, peace and joy; all these heavenly blessings now and eternally–but we are not even listening to what He is actually saying, promising, giving us in His word and Sacrament but want Him only for something earthly. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Yes, we too, dear Christian, have great cause to examine our own heart and life for this sin and to repent of it.
This incident then gave Jesus the chance to warn His hearers about greed and that led Him into the parable of the rich fool. And this incident also serves as a wonderful lead into our text from King Solomon, who as an old man looks back over his life and says: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Vanity here means “nothingness, mere breath, nothing but vapor.” Vanity of vanities is the greatest and highest meaninglessness; and what is this most utter “nothingness”? –Everything! all is vanity. This life is vanity/ meaninglessness, nothing but vapor. This lack of hope sounds so modern but was written about 3000 years ago.
St. James picks up on this thought and writes in his epistle [4.14]: For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. In Jesus’ parable of the rich fool in today’s Gospel, what does the rich fool think, see as the goal, as the greatest good in life? This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grains and goods. How will the rich fool make use of these great earthly blessings the Lord entrusted to him? And I will tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry.” So this is how one “enjoys” life? How one “finds fulfillment”? Okay–so a person comes to that point of wealth and pleasure, and then what happens? – But God said to him, “You fool, this night your soul will be demanded from you.” Certainly that is vanity of vanities, mere nothingness, vapor that vanishes. Because why? It is here today and gone tomorrow. That’s what happens when a person focuses their life on the here and now and lives for the here and now; when there is no thought or heed given to the heavenly and eternal. That’s the message of the world we live in–live for the here and now. Our society “programs” us to be “consumers”–to use and use more things, not because we have need of them but simply to get more and more because these things will supposedly make us happy; we’ll find our contentment in them. The message of the culture is materialism–only these things that we touch and have are real and can make us happy. The more you get, the happier and fuller your life will be. But Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!
There is that seemingly endless loop of life; people searching for meaning and contentment–that emptiness they feel and think “There has to be more!” but never really finding satisfaction, true rest and contentment of the soul. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity–it is all so fleeting and unstable; life seems to be vain, frustrating and without purpose; beneath all the hustle and bustle and “busyness” people fill their lives with–perhaps as a drug to take away/ mask the thought deep down that all is vanity–that terrible sense of emptiness remains.
The simple fact is that all is vanity because of sin. It’s not that the things of the world are bad in and of themselves. They are all good gifts of God to us. But what happens is our sinful human heart abuses these things by trying to make them do something they can’t do–to bring us true happiness and contentment: Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry. But really it is an abuse, pure foolishness, Vanity of vanities, to try to find our happiness/ contentment in “things”. Everything in this world is created; it cannot satisfy/ make content our immortal soul. Think about it–everything we have in this world was ultimately created by God out of nothing–so it has an aspect/ element of “nothingness” in it. Human creation/ life comes specially from God [Gn,2.7] who breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. We have the eternal in us; we have an immortal soul. The “take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry” doesn’t cut it!
When Solomon says Vanity of vanities, all is vanity what’s he saying? Simply this: with eyes focused only on this world and the things of this world, without looking toward God and the things of God and the eternal, without faith in the true God, life is pointless; there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind anything. All of life is meaningless, useless, hollow, futile if we don’t see God in it.
Our text: I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven. What’s the common response to someone who says Money doesn’t make you happy? –I’d like to find out for myself! But remember, these words Vanity of vanities, all is vanity were written by Solomon, a person who had it all. Scripture says of Solomon [2 Chr. 9.22]: So King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart. Solomon had in droves everything the world seeks and prizes for happiness: wealth, power, pleasure and yet he can say: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. Without God, without faith in Him, it is all pointless; there is no true, lasting happiness, contentment.
But seeing with faith in the true God–as the God who created us and still rules the world, as the God who is also our dear heavenly Father and Savior–everything changes! We have a whole brand new perspective. Our existence has meaning! Nothing is pointless. We, our lives, have meaning! We are not some “cosmic accident”; nothing going on is by fluke or accident or just dumb luck. The world is marching toward an end with the Lord in control; it’s not just random chaos. Instead of seeing the world as the same as before: full of evil, injustice, suffering, death, ignorance, failure, we instead simply recognize it as it is and know that God is in control. At the very end of this book Solomon writes in summary of all [12.13]: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. Fearing God–that’s recognizing/ knowing Him rightly by faith. And that’s when the perplexity stops. There is great peace and calm in our souls: God is in control; things are not spiraling out of control. The very God who loves me and sent His Son to be my Savior from sin is the God who is in control; the very God who loves me and died on the cross for my sins and rose again–He is in heaven ruling and guiding all things for me personally and for all His dear Christians.
Really, this makes for contentment in our lives. Knowing God is in control. Knowing everything in this world must serve Him and His good and gracious purposes toward us, lets us be patient and enjoy life as God gives it. Yes, we will see and experience much that is wicked and evil in the world; but we will also see and experience much of what is good–gifts and blessings and graces of God. We will not despair of the evil, nor will we seek our true happiness in these often fleeting good gifts, mourning and despairing when they are not there. In the midst of great sorrow and suffering, we know, by faith, that our Lord is gracious and merciful and we trust in Him, even though we do not know His hidden will. But we can be content and patient, looking to His holy word in which He tells us of and gives us His grace and blessings. Even our sufferings we know as things not random, pointless or just dumb luck–instead, we know the Lord is working mightily and powerfully in them His good and gracious purposes and will toward us. With faith in the Lord, we don’t always have to be perplexed and anxious about things. Instead we are, by faith, brought through the confusion of all unstable the things we see and experience to the things firm and immovable.
Here is a true gift and value of our text, and all of Ecclesiastes, when we hear Solomon crying out after looking back over his life: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. He is pointing us away from the things of this world, from seeking our joy, contentment, fulfillment in the things of the world; he is directing our gaze heavenward by driving home to us the simple reality of life in this world contaminated by sin: All is vanity; it is all nothingness, nothing but vapor which is there for a short time but is quickly gone. Does Solomon sound like a hopeless pessimist? Absolutely! But what he writes is the truth: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity– without faith life is pointless: it does seem random; there is nothing solid; there is nothing that gives us true satisfaction and contentment. So by stating the truth, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity, what is Solomon doing? He is pointing us to seek the better; He is driving us to seek the Lord; He is driving us to seek the heavenly! He lived it–all is vanity–and now Solomon warns us. Through Solomon the Lord is calling us to Him, to see Him, by faith, as our gracious God and Savior, to set our attention on heavenly things. To us baptized Christians St. Paul writes the same thing in today’s epistle: because you were raised with Christ [in baptism], seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things. That’s why faith in Christ changes everything: without it life is meaningless–all is vanity; with it life is full of a divine richness and peace. INJ