Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 4, 2019
This late book of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of a sage's very honest but disappointing search for lasting happiness.
In earlier chapters of this letter, Paul has taught how we need only Christ, and how we join him in baptism. Here the Apostle lays out some ethical implications of our union with Christ.
This is one of the twelve places in Saint Luke's writings where he criticizes greed or enjoins generosity to the poor.*
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Luke 11;1-13, contains two of Jesus' saying about the futility of greed. A passage from the Hebrew Scriptures on the same theme is our first reading.
The Literary Background: Let the lector beware! Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes is no walk in the park. This is the only passage from the book anywhere in our Sunday Lectionary. That alone tells you this is an unusual work. Rabbis debated vigorously about whether to include it in the Bible. James A. Fischer, C.M., in The Collegeville Bible Commentary -- Old Testament (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992) suggests why:
The Book of Ecclesiastes is the most damnable book in the Bible and yet the most satisfying for those who have learned to live comfortably with doubt. That it is damnable seems clear; it has been denounced many times as cynical, pessimistic, worldly, and downright heretical. That it is in the Bible at all and provides great comfort for those who are willing to face life honestly is also a fact. Ecclesiastes--or to give him the Hebrew name by which he is often known, Qoheleth [pronounced ko HE leth]--destroys most of the accepted clichés on which the superficially pious live.
If this has whetted your appetite, read the whole short book.
Two other ideas about the origin of the book: In introducing other wisdom books, Lector's Notes has asserted that wisdom was what you sought when life's more urgent necessities had been satisfied, when your borders were secure, your economy stable, and your tribe's theological controversies pretty much settled. Then it was time to pursue the good life, which meant staying on God's good side and enjoying God's blessings. If that's wisdom, then this is the book of anti-wisdom. Not because it's decadent, but because it questions with utter honesty the rosy assumption that God makes good things happen to well-behaved people.
Ralph W. Klein reviews books about the Bible for scholarly Lutheran publications. One of his reviews (requires subscription to see whole review) summarizes a thesis by Thomas Kruger: "Qoheleth [to use the book's Hebrew title, the author's pseudonym] was probably written at the end of the third century B.C.E. and polemicizes against an understanding of wisdom as the guarantee of a long, successful, and happy life. Experience taught Qoheleth that wisdom is by no means as easy to find as Proverbs 1-9 and Sirach assert. Qoheleth criticizes hopes for a continued existence of the individual after death. The temple is needed not for the atonement of guilt (5:5 Why should the Deity become angry over your speech?) but for the cultivation and transmission of religious traditions (4:17 draw near in order to hear and not in order to make a sacrificial offering). Qoheleth can serve as an example of an intellectually honest treatment of cultural and religious traditions that is itself not above criticism."
Another of Klein's reviews (new link, 2016) says that a 2004 book by Norbert Lohfink "advocates a clear (and controversial) stance: Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), written in the third century, was an attempt to profit as much as possible from the Greek understanding of the world, without forcing Israel's wisdom to give up its status. Qoheleth made it into the canon because it was one of the textbooks used in the temple school in Jerusalem and in the comparable synagogue schools. When Qoheleth was introduced as a textbook, the first postscript was added in 12:9-11. The second postscript in 12:12-14 was an attempt to block the creation of new textbooks and to defend the book's orthodoxy by attributing to Qoheleth a slogan--"Fear God and keep his commandments"--that is more at home in Sirach."
So how shall you proclaim it? A sense of vigorous outrage will do nicely, thank you. After all, there's a serious injustice here. You work hard, you build up your fortune. Then you die and somebody else gets your loot. Doesn't that just take the cake? Well, complain about it! Sound like this offends you. It should. It made a deeply religious man, Qoheleth, doubt deeply the fairness of God. Qoheleth did not have the benefit of having heard the gospel of Saint Luke. So he was really struggling with this question. You should sound like it's a struggle for you, too.
The Literary Background: This is the end of our tour of Colossians, which Paul wrote to combat certain doctrinal and disciplinary errors afoot in the Christian community at Colossae. Paul's letters (and letters of those using Paul's name) often start with doctrinal matters and then end with moral injunctions. Such is the case here. The first paragraph of today's selection, though, is tied to previous doctrinal assertions (see Lector's Notes for the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Sundays of Ordinary Time, Year C). The cosmic powers mentioned there have no claim on Christians' loyalty. The demands of earthly religions (required rituals, dietary restrictions, fasting, etc.) are null and void for those whose allegiance is to the heavenly Christ.
Likewise sinful behavior is, for them, just unthinkable. If the Colossians had done such things in the past, that was then, this is now. They are a new humanity now. Furthermore, any discrimination they might have made among people, because of their race or religion or class, is now out of the question.
Your Proclamation: So as you proclaim this, capture the sense of newness and liberation that the Colossians enjoyed because of their baptism into Christ. Vigorously contrast the earthly and the heavenly, the sinful and the virtuous, the old and the new.
Vincent Van Gogh, Peach Tree in Blossom, 1888. Housed in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands, whose graphic seems muted, compared to the version above. Click here for the Wikipedia article about the series of paintings of which this is a part.
This page updated July 3, 2019