Everything is vanity, the reading from Ecclesiastes says. The writer of Ecclesiastes means that everything is in vain. You toil in the day; you’re anxious in the night. And it’s all for nothing, the writer thinks. Who cares about it?
No wonder many people think Ecclesiastes is a depressing book!
But notice that Jesus says something similar in the Gospel reading. The rich man was thinking about building bigger barns. But in the parable God says to him, “You fool! This night your soul will be required of you, and somebody else will get all your stuff.” How will the rich man care about his barns then?
And that’s the problem with many of the things we care about in this life, barns or material goods of any kind: you lose them when you die.
The same thing is true of a lot of what we spend our lives on. Those things don’t amount to anything in the long run; and, like the rich man, we waste the part of our lives that we use up on them. There is time spent struggling for the next honor or the next accomplishment. There is time consumed on sorrowing over not having gotten the next honor or accomplishment. For that matter, there is time frittered away watching TV or surfing the internet, or just puttering around doing nothing. Picture yourself as you come before God at your death, returning to God the talents he entrusted to you. Will you care about any of those things then?
That’s why Ecclesiastes says they are vanity. Whatever good is in them is transient; they die when you do.
In the long run, then, who cares about them? You can’t take any of them with you when you die, any more than the rich man could take his barns with him. When you come before the face of God you won’t care about them then either.
Ecclesiastes is a consoling book, not a depressing one. The transience of earthly goods should be comforting to us. Barns may be good, but, in the long run, getting them—or losing them—is not of overwhelming importance. We can do our work in quiet, and we can suffer our reverses in quiet too, because none of these things last.
Love lasts. Work done for love of the Lord lasts. And guess what—the Lord himself is ever-lasting. If what you want is God, what you want will last.
What is worth caring about is what lasts.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University