The first reading is from a book called Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth and neither name is very helpful for us, but it is one of the latest books added to the last section of the Jewish bible, the Christian Old Testament. It is a kind of wisdom literature: the thoughts of someone about life seen as a journey through various different situations but always finding life unsatisfactory. Our reading is mostly from Chapter 2 (verses 21 -23); it is introduced with the well-known phrase ‘vanity of vanities, all things are vanity,’ at the beginning of the book. But this can miss the sense, for nowadays vanity means pride, often pride where there is nothing of which to be proud; the Hebrew word really seems to refer to something that is vaporous or even foggy; and the whole book would bear out this meaning, for the author finds that things that at first appear solid turn out to be nothing but airy-fairy nonsense. The book is attributed to the son of David, Solomon, for he was noted for his wisdom, but it was written about 700 years after him – about 300 before Christ. There was some debate by Jewish scholars about whether it should be seen as a sacred book, but in the end it found its way into the bible. I think it is a very religious attitude to see the contingency and insubstantiality of everything – the futility of whatever one does except (and that’s a big except) for the presence and activity of God in our lives and in all (the good) we do.
The second reading is from the last chapter of Colossians (3:1-11 passim), and this is the fourth Sunday we have read from this letter. It summarises succinctly the situation we are in and the imperatives that follow from this. The distinctive feature of the passage may be brought out by examining the structure of the language: there is a putting together of statements of fact with requirements of behaviour (in more technical language, a transition from indicative verbs to imperative ones, from “is” to “ought”). Through Christ there is a new situation, humanity is elevated to a new plane of existence; the consequence is that we ought to live differently, there is an imperative for us to live up to this new life – a life with Christ, within God’s life.
The gospel we have for today is peculiar to Luke (12:13-21). It begins with a phrase used several times by Luke, “a man” or sometimes translated “someone” or “a certain man;” such was the beginning of the parables of the Good Samaritan (which we read three weeks ago) and the one about the Prodigal Son. In Jesus’ time and place, a dispute of a legal, moral or religious question would be brought to a rabbi for a judgment to provide an answer or solution. Jesus was not really a rabbi, but in Luke’s account here this man who had a dispute with is brother over the inheritance, presumable left by a parent, asked Jesus to make a ruling. Jesus wasn’t going to over-reach his authority, but took the opportunity to teach a moral lesson about the relative value of earthly riches compared with the prize of heaven; and so we have the parable of the Rich Man. This is actually the first of five such tales Luke records about a rich man; he is trying to make some point.
See Jeffs Jottings on the first reading