"Kohelet: Eccentric Sage of Pleasure and Pain"
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21
Church of the Nativity, Episcopal
August 4, 2013
“Vanity of vanities...
all is vanity.”
“Absurdity of absurdities...
all is absurd.”
all is transient.”
The Christian tradition does not have much to say about the book of Ecclesiastes. This is not so hard to believe as I would wager that most contemporary Christians continue to avoid it. How are preachers to give their people good vibes with an opening verse like, “Vanity of vanities... all is vanity.” How are we supposed to pump people up saying, “Absurdity of absurdities!... All is absurd!”?
The Teacher, or Kohelet in the Hebrew, is the most eccentric of the sages. The more popular Old Testament book of wisdom--the book of Proverbs--was written by wise men that are more in tune with our religious sensibilities. The sayings that are found in Proverbs are often profound, even at times surprising, but they never shock the pious. Kohelet, on the other hand, is provocative. One can imagine people walking away from a session with him shaking their heads, no longer certain just what to believe. Kohelet is the sage of shock and awe--in your face, offensive, profound.
With that said, for obvious reasons this book has had a special appeal to young people. Some of you may have seen a CNN article this week about why young people--or, Millennials--are quitting the church. Rachel Held Evans, the author of the piece, says that one of reasons youth are staying away is because of the inauthenticity in church culture. There may be something to her diagnosis, maybe not, but if there’s one thing the book of Ecclesiastes has never been faulted for it’s lack of authenticity.
Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes that Ecclesiastes “retains to this day a special appeal for youth of high school and college age, as well as for young adults struggling with the disappointments of ‘the real world.’ One by one, Kohelet exposes the absurdity of our pretentions to uniqueness, our expectations of lasting fame or enduring achievement.” Maybe you’ve noticed that the young are always quick to notice and point out the shortcomings of their parents. They seem more sensitive to injustice. They are more apt to see that riches and morality do not have a one-to-one correlation. They notice that often times the wicked prosper and the humble are impoverished.
The book of Ecclesiastes has also been of interest to soldiers. A famous Vietnam War chaplain noted that Ecclesiastes was the one part of the Bible his soldiers were willing to hear while in combat. Kohelet is acquainted with disparity. The politicians wage wars from behind their desks, while the lowly experience the hell that is war. Those in foxholes resonate with Kohelet.
This book has also been a source of catharsis for many a person struggling with depression. Ellen Davis writes that one of her former students “who suffers from recurrent bouts of depression, says that reading Ecclesiastes is for her ‘like slipping into a warm bath.’ She feels soothed, supported; her perception of reality has been articulated within the pages of Scripture. She is not crazy, [she is] no longer alone.”
I would bet that the reason most Christians today and throughout history have not looked closely at Ecclesiastes is because they see him as depressing--they see him as a cynic. Consider a selection from our reading this morning:
“I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (1:12-14)
Talk about a Debbie-Downer! Who would want to be around a pessimist like Kohelet for very long? How am I to maintain my “I am blessed” demeanor if I meditate on Ecclesiastes?” Kohelet’s radical nay-saying is probably what caused the ancient Jews to think twice before including Ecclesiastes (his book) in the canon.
But, ultimately, Ecclesiastes was received as sacred Scripture. Why? Well, those who have spent quality time in its pages tell us that if we view Kohelet as a cynic then we’ve got him all wrong. Those who love Ecclesiastes tell us that if you chew on this book you will see that Kohelet’s goal is not to disillusion his readers and leave them comfortless. Rather, his nay-saying is how he instructs us in matters essential to the life of faith.
Kohelet teaches us about humility. He says that life cannot be mastered, it can only be enjoyed. His basic message is that when pleasures great and small come our way we are to receive the gift. Or, when enjoyment is not possible, then life must be endured.
Ecclesiastes 3:22 reads, “There is nothing better than that a person should take joy in his doings.” Kohelet is always on the look-out for the possibility of joy. But vague encouragement like “Have a nice day!” or “You are so blessed, nevermind your sorrows” is not enough for him. Kohelet would have us take satisfaction in intimate relationships--friendships and, yes, even sex. He would have us enjoy our work--knowing that it is approved by God--while not making it our identity (because that too is vanity). Finally, Kohelet would have us enjoy the simple things, like sleep and sunlight, eating, drinking, and being merry, if we are able.
And that last bit abouting eating, drinking, and being merry is helpful to keep in mind in light of the parable from this morning’s Gospel lesson. You see the same phrase “eat, drink, and be merry” is found in our passage from Luke, only this time it is used negatively. Is the author of Luke contradicting Kohelet thus giving Christians another reason to ignore Ecclesiastes? Is he telling us that to having a good time with friends is an activity unsuited for the Christian? No. The man in Jesus’ parable is a very selfish person. Everything is about him. Notice how many “I”-statements he makes: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” (Luke 12:19-21)
The problem in Jesus’s parable is not the enjoyment of sensual pleasure--relaxing, eating, drinking, and being merry. What is wrong is that the man in Jesus’ parable is not rich toward God. He is acting like he is going to live forever. He has accumulated these great riches, and has no thought of anyone else. He is not a generous person.
The tension between Luke and Kohelet is an illusion. The author of Ecclesiastes is not advocating hedonism when we writes, “there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves.” (8:12) Hedonism, too, is absurd for Kohelet. But in this perceived tension a challenge is found for those who think that Kohelet is a mere a cynic, unedifying, and unworthy of our attention. Kohelet helps Christians understand that our triune God wants his children to enjoy the fruits of the earth. He wants them to eat, drink, and be merry, if they can. He wants us to be on the look-out for joy. Far from being cynical and unedifying, he is insistent on enjoyment. Kohelet is honest about the trials and tribulations of this life, but he also encourages us to pursue pleasure--concrete, earthy pleasures at that. He gives us the freedom to take pleasure in luxurious meals together, enjoying wine or beer over pleasant conversation. He sets us loose to pursue our loves, while reminding us to recognize the everyday gifts that we so often overlook. This is all to say that Kohelet breeds in his students a love of the world, rather than fear or contempt, which is another reason for his enduring appeal to the young.
More than that, Kohelet also gives Christians the freedom to acknowledge their sorrow. As you well know, life is not always on the up-and-up. There are times when life is drudgery--when it simply has to be endured. There are times when it’s hard to get a decent paying job, when your current work is killing your soul, when the best anti-depressants refuse to do away with your chemical imbalance, when someone that you love hurts you deeply or leaves you for good.
A positive attitude, as helpful as that can be, will not shield us from suffering and depression, tragedy and death. This false “I am always happy” attitude prevalent among many well-meaning Christians is not only contrary to the biblical witness, but also debilitating. It refuses to let us acknowledge that the world that is flawed, it refuses to allow sufferers to cry out, “I need help.”
Maybe a reason that young people are so drawn to this nay-saying book is because they have found a companion in their dissonance. Maybe soldiers on the front lines can hear it because Kohelet is also familiar with grave injustice. Maybe the chronically depressed are so drawn to it because they have found a fellow sufferer who understands their plight.
Kohelet may be a nay-sayer, but he is no cynic. He is always on the look-out for joy. He is always ready to receive the gift. But he is also unafraid to call a spade a spade. He refuses to pretend that nothing is wrong. He is convinced that this realm of Sin and Death engenders absurdity.
May you and I be liberated by the Spirit to embrace the pleasures of this life. May we also be set free to voice our pain and our sorrows, our concerns and our sense of injustice.