Possible theme(s): Trust in God not in wealth // Be what you are
Sentence: Truly, no ransom avails for one's life, there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:7)
God of all the earth
You have given us the heritage
of this good and fertile land;
grant that we may so respect and use it
that others may thank us
for what we leave to them. Amen [Pent 24:2: NZPB p. 636]
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Within wisdom literature in the Bible (Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job) two perspectives on daily life stand in tension. Work hard, play fair, save for a rainy day, reap the rewards of sensible living is a perspective in Proverbs whereas in Ecclesiastes, represented in today's verses, life sucks. Working hard is hard work and tiring, according to Ecclesiastes. Playing fair is all very well but the end of the game is pain and death. Saving for a rainy day could mean one's children get to enjoy spending it, and, as for the rewards of sensible living, what about all the nights lying awake wondering if one can get through the next day?
Our calling as preachers is not necessarily to resolve each tension in Scripture. Ecclesiastes is gloomy in outlook but that might speak to the pessimists in the congregation. The point of Ecclesiastes (and thus a challenge to pessimists) is not revealed in these verses (one needs to jump ahead to the last chapters of the book). Ultimately gloominess is not the prevailing word but seriousness is. The wise person is serious about the importance of living well because God judges all our deeds (12:14).
The serious lesson in today's readings is that material gain may be in vain and thus the ultimate goal of life should not be defined by material success. That lesson ties in with the gospel reading.
This psalm emphasises "wisdom" in its contents. Less a song than a sermon ("Hear this, all you peoples ..." v. 1, see also v.4), its message ties in beautifully with the gospel: 'tis foolish to trust in wealth since death denies its advantage to us (vss. 5-9). There is also a tie to the gloominess of Ecclesiastes: death comes to both the wise and to the foolish (v. 10).
This passage is "thick", rich in content. It begins with strong encouragement about focus or priority for Christian life (and thus ties in well with the other readings for today): "seek the things which are above" (v. 1, repeated v. 2). But, typical of Paul, a call to action is undergirded by theological reasons for the action. Christians are those who have "died" (to self, to sin, through identification with Christ on the cross, v.3) and been "raised with Christ" (to new life, to holy living, through identification with Christ in his resurrection, v.1). So we are to "seek the things that are above" (i.e. in keeping with being a "raised with Christ" person, v.1), doing so in the understanding that our "life is hidden with Christ in God" (v. 3). To be a Christian is, in a Pauline phrase, to be "in Christ." We are participants in the very life of Christ himself, through mystical union in the Spirit of God: thus Paul calls us to live outwardly what is now the inward status of our lives.
The instructions through verses 5-9 make sense in this way: put to death the things that steer you away from the focus to which you are called. Verse 10 is the positive construction of new life in Christ: this new life is the life in which Christ remakes us to be what we are meant to be, people made in the image of God our creator (see Genesis 1:26-28) - it is elaborated further in verse 12 and following. The point here is not, "here are the rule of a morally upright life, obey them," rather it is, "You are called to live as Christ himself lives, thus these things can no longer be the way you live."
The final verse in today's passage reminds the Colossians that "in Christ" there are no divisions of people in the usual way (see also Galatians 3:28) and thus no excuses for how we are to live. Perhaps, particularly, Paul is urging that no one can claim an excuse for living badly on the basis of ignorance due to cultural background.
Any rich person should be uncomfortable reading Luke's Gospel! Whether we read Luke as aggressively attacking the rich or mildly challenging reliance on possessions, many passages in this gospel unashamedly talk about money, wealth and materiality with the edge that being rich is not a blessing.
Here Jesus takes an innocent request re a family inheritance and turns it into a warning to take care about greed and a statement about life itself. The abundance of possessions is not life. Kiwis keen on having a house to live in, a house at the beach, a boat to enjoy the sea and a large 4WD to take the boat to the beach, take note!
Then Jesus tells a memorable and pointed parable which speaks to all generations and all cultures about greed. A man, wise in the ways of the world, both accrues wealth and enlarges his storage of it, only to discover he has foolishly forgotten God who visits him in death and at a stroke takes the wealth away, leaving him standing before God in judgement with nothing.
If we read the parable itself as about the mega-rich and thus not about ourselves we should pay particular attention to 12:21: we each in our own way, even with the little we can set aside each pay day, "store up treasures" and thus should ask ourselves on what ways we are "rich towards God."