Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23; Col 3:1-5,9-11; Lk 12:13-21

I’d like to reflect some reflections this morning on one of the most well-known books of the Bible as well as one of the least-known books of the Bible. Oddly they are the very same book—the one we heard in today’s first reading from the book of Ecclesiastes. Biblical scholars prefer to use its Hebrew name (Koheleth). It’s well-known mainly because of two passages: the one we just heard, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," and the opening of chapter three, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven." Other than those two very well-known passages, the great majority of Christian believers probably know very little about the book. It almost never occurs in the Lectionary readings. Other than this Sunday it only appears every other year on a couple of weekdays in September. Among Scripture scholars it is the subject of many, many questions—the biggest one being, "How in the world did this book ever make it into the Bible?" I’ll explain the reasons for that question a little later. Scholars are divided on how many authors might have contributed to the work; estimates vary from one to four. There are also many questions about when it was written.

To those who read the book, Koheleth is the great debunker of almost everything in the biblical tradition. All life, including all religion, is vanity; it’s like a puff of air that comes and goes. Koheleth has been called the great skeptic of the bible. He never denies the sovereignty or plan of God for the world; he simply doubts the ability of the human mind to grasp God’s intentions clearly and accurately. The more anyone proclaims, "I have it," the more Koheleth says, "it’s all vanity." He protests the attempts of believers to buttress their faith with dogma, authority, tradition or revelation. Koheleth remains skeptical and even a bit cynical about all such efforts.

Many believers who read the whole book for the first time are shocked at some of Koheleth’s attitudes and judgments. They find passages about the futility of seeking too much religious knowledge (5:1-6). He says it’s absurd to push oneself to a great deal of religious asceticism. In fact, he even sees value in not taking religion too seriously and he definitely sees value in not praying too much. He also says that people shouldn’t try to save the world from all the cruelty and injustice in it. (3:16-21) Koheleth remains very suspicious of any authority; religious leaders and kings don’t always say what they mean. To him most bureaucracies, including religious ones, are corrupt and primarily concerned with perpetuating themselves.(5:8-9) All in all it’s better to have nothing to do with them.

In the midst of all this ferment against most things the bible usually stands for, Koheleth does offer some positive advice, although it’s limited in scope. He advises people to maintain a fundamental reverence for God, but a reverence that keeps a respectful agnosticism about the world God created and God’s plans for it. No one can really explain why so much religious ideology and corruption abound in the world. The best thing is to stay away from it as best one can and appreciate the small, good things we receive from God’s bounty. Do everything in moderation! Keep your religious practices simple, clean, honest and short! He writes: "Avoid extremes. If you have a simple reverence for God, you will be successful." (7:18)

So, how did this book ever make it in the bible? It goes so much against the mainstream. The consistent message of the Prophets is that God loves justice and hates iniquity. Koheleth says: we can’t know what God’s justice is. The whole overview of both Old Testament and New Testament builds on the Plan of God for Israel and the Church through the scope of Creation, Redemption and ultimate Fulfillment. Koheleth says: we can’t know what that is. So, why is it in the Bible? Well...there are those days in our lives when each one of us entertains serious doubts about our faith in God’s Plan. Maybe they put the book of Koheleth in the Bible so we will have something to read on those days.

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