Monday, August 01, 2016

Pentecost 11C

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Chapter 1

1The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?

12I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied 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. 14I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Chapter 2

218I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
Bible: a book of [66] books...

with many different types of literary genres, forms, styles. Quick overview includes psalms that themselves are prayers and songs; NT canticles in Luke are similar to psalms and modeled on OT sources. Bible includes history—some bureaucratic, some simple narrative, some historical accounts that are saga or myth and bring us the people's phenomenological experiences along with their emotional and psychological ones. We get prophecy with four Major Prophets, and the shorter Book of the Twelve, aka "Minor Prophets"—prophecy/speaking truth to power includes exhortation, diatribe, polemic, apocalyptic. Some biography/autobiography: parts of Job are biographical; so are a lot of NT epistles. Epistles are letters that mean "sent" writings! The NT includes four gospels. Gospel originally was the returning Roman general's victory proclamation about annihilating and vanquishing his enemies, an announcement of death. Starting with Mark, Christianity subverted gospel into a proclamation of the victory of life over death, an announcement of resurrection from the dead.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Today's text from Ecclesiastes is in the group of Old Testament / Hebrew Bible writings that are neither Torah nor Prophecy. It's part of the Wisdom literature that also includes Proverbs, Song of Songs/Song of Solomon, and Job. The name of the book evokes "ecclesiastical," ecclesia, etc., descriptors we use for the church, the called-out assembly (City Council, New England Town Meeting, Church Council, Session, Consistory, Sacramento Assembly...). The Hebrew title of the book, Koheleth, Kehilleth, Qoheleth, means teacher/preacher, especially someone who address the gathered assembly, similar to a Minister of the Word in our traditions.

All three lectionary years feature Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, "To everything there is a season," as the first reading for New Year's Day, but otherwise this is the only instance of Ecclesiastes for all 36 lectionary months.

The book of Ecclesiastes opens with "The words of the teacher, the son of David, King of Jerusalem," but its vocabulary, syntax, sentence structure, general worldview and philosophy place it much later, way far post-exilic, probably two or three centuries before Jesus of Nazareth's birth. In some ways it's close to a parody of what the write imagined King Solomon might have said.

The recurring word "vanity" isn't what we think of as vain—for example, Carly Simon telling Warren Beatty (according to some sources), "you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." It's not your household kitteh strutting around wanting admiration, or the allover style of one of the presidential candidates that also had gotten press for lots of other negative attributes. This vanity is something fleeting, ephemeral, can't be captured. 1:14 reads, "chasing after wind." We feel the wind, we know it's there, but it's beyond elusive.

Lectionary compilers placed this not very positive text alongside Colossians 3:1-11 about our identity in Christ and Luke 12:13-21 about the guy stockpiling lots of stuff he couldn't take with him. This passage comes across on the negative side, but the New Year's Day reading from Ecclesiastes tells us, "the gift of God is that all should [exhortation!] eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." Ecclesiastes 3:13

Discussion. If you were writing your newsletter article or something similar, what would you reflect on this text?

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