Vanitas Still Life, Claesz 1625, Frans Halls Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands.
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Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! Ecclesiastes 1:2.
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Today’s first reading opens with the quote above. It is strange that some biblical passages stick in the memory forever, and I believe this to be one of them. We are liable to come out with it when a friend is spending too much time getting ready to go out, or we might even spring it on ourselves after spending too much time on our hair or nails or choice of clothes. But to counter that, here is a line from today’s gospel: “Eat, drink and be merry”, a second equally popular quotation!
Eat, Drink, & Be Merry Beer Bucket, GourmetGiftBaskets.com.
And these two expressions might seem to be diametrically opposed, but of course the second quote is taken out of context, whereas the first is not. You might say to yourself “spoilsport” at this moment. But today’s readings are not super wordplays, but lead us to a very sober conclusion which I believe to be the point of today’s teaching. Remember that Jesus was not opposed to a good party; his first miracle, you recall, was to replenish the wine which had run out at a wedding reception (John 2:1-12). He essentially invited himself over to Matthew’s house for a dinner party too, admittedly with a motive… (Matthew 9:10-17). So the image of a good time, with which he was familiar, was being used deliberately to make a serious point in this parable, and the first reading is, I believe, the key to the readings.
But first, the parable talks of a very successful, rich, farmer. He is so skilled, successful and no doubt lucky (with the weather) that he cannot house all the produce of his fields. So he plans to store as much as possible so that it is available in the future, which, for him, there is none, as God will call him from this life that very night. He will enjoy none of it. It was all in vain, as it were. All is vanity. So what is the point? Look at the gospel carefully, and you will see this: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God”. It was all focused on himself. There was no mention of sharing or providing for others, very similar to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). There is also a similar scene from Dickens Christmas Carol. Scrooge, led by the Spirit of Christmas Past, is reminded of the annual Christmas party old Fezziwig, his first employer, gave to his employees and how much goodwill was gained from it.
Ghost of Christmas Parties Past – Mr Fezziwig’s Ball, John Leech, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843).
Isn’t that the way to handle one’s bounty? If old Fezziwig had been called from this life that night, he would have been sincerely mourned and missed, because he had shared the fruits of his labors, exactly what God is looking for. Clearly there was no vanity here at all. Old Fezziwig was what you could call, without blushing, a Child of God from such simple, joyful acts of charity and goodwill. As we can see from today’s second reading, there was none of this world’s evil in that old gentleman, something which Scrooge glimpsed and then compared it to his own behavior, which Dickens describes as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” One who, it might be said, did not have one joyous bone in his body. All was vanity with him, and no happiness whatever. What a way to live! The painting of Vanitas (Vanity in Latin) at the top seems to show a life apparently better than Scrooge’s bleak life, but still empty: the anemone flower is very short lived, also indicated by the timepiece whose wind-up key is dangling and liable to vanish below. The walnut is split, its fruit soon to wither, the candle is burned down to the base and will soon flicker and die. And the letter, unsealed which means it has been read, together with the quill pen, suggests a reply has been thought of, but has not been written. It all points to the shortness of life here on earth and offers comparison with the life to come, eternal and full of life.
So all the readings put together warn us of the frivolity of grasping as much as we can for ourselves in this life, because this life is not permanent and it is not intended to circle around the individual. God requires, orders us to consider others and their good. One way leads to nothing, the other to life eternal. Vanity, therefore, is an example of pride, one of the seven deadly sins. As with any mortal sin, it can start with tiny little selfish imperfections, but can build into a catastrophic disaster capable of leading us to hell. As ever, the Lord is calling us to self-examination, identity of that which is wrong, eliminating it and substituting it with life-giving, other-oriented life goals which, though challenging, lead us on a much happier road to heaven.
Reaching for the Sky, April 2014.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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