Reading Ramblings – August 4, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019

Texts: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Context: This is one of the very few Sundays with a reading assigned from Ecclesiastes. The book has been a conundrum to Jewish and Christian theologians for almost three millenia. But it well suits a larger theme in the readings of the meaning of life. Man’s quest for meaningfulness in his short life is not a new thing, even if our answers to that question (at least as far as Western Civilization goes) differ markedly from previous generations. Without God to anchor our identity and therefore meaning, we seek after alternatives, winding up at best with the desire for a good life – long life, health, wealth, fame, etc. But as the Gospel text points out, these are false and misguided purposes as we are not the determiners of our own fate.

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26 – Ecclesiastes is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, son of King David and last of the monarchs of a united kingdom of Israel. Solomon is credited with writing Song of Solomon as a young man, Proverbs as a middle-aged man now king of Israel, and Ecclesiastes as the work of an aged Solomon reflecting on his life. The philosophical bent of the book has made generations of the faithful ill at ease, but it calls us to an understanding of our identity and purpose as creations of God meant for relationship for him through the vocational callings of our lives. Anything that eclipses God will soon prove itself to be shallow and meaningless, providing an ever decreasing return on investment. When we live out our identities as creatures of God, we can properly deal – theologically and philosophically – with the ups and downs of life, enjoying moments of happiness and weathering moments of sorrow and loss.

Psalm 100 – This psalm beautifully captures the spirit of the final verses of the reading from Ecclesiastes. We are made to praise God. This is our natural purpose, though it is distorted and misdirected by our sinfulness. When we cease to see our lives as primarily about us and what we want or like and more as an opportunity to acknowledge and then praise our Creator, when we place ourselves into his hands, trusting his care and provision in all circumstances, there is peace which will naturally flow out into praise and thanksgiving. This might sound like a tenuous position to place ourselves in. But God is not capricious! God is good! He creates and tends us like a shepherd does his sheep, and his love is steadfast and endures. The implication is that it endures despite our cold-heartedness and our misguided fears and distrust and rebellion against him. We are not ever-loving or steadfast in our relationship with God but He remains steadfast with us. Who could more rightly deserve our joyful noises, our service, our singing, our thanksgiving, our praise and our blessings?

Colossians 3:1-11 – Paul is not expressing doubt about the salvation of the Colossians. His opening thought in verse 1 is not maybe you are or maybe you aren’t saved. Paul is engaged in rhetoric, based on the strong assertion of the reality of the Colossians’ faith in Christ expressed in 2:1-19. The Colossians are in Christ! And if that is a reality (which it is) then certain things flow from that reality logically. They are dead to the ritualistic prescriptions of the Levitical laws and rabbinic traditions (2:20-23). Since their identity in Christ is secure they are free to divert their attention from these distractions to more important and appropriate things – the things of God (3:1-4). But this is not to say that the behavior of the Christian is unimportant or should not be attended to. Paul constantly has to defend himself and the gospel against the charge of antinomianism – the idea that Christians can ignore and flout the Law of God because of the grace and forgiveness they have in Christ. What a silly idea! Those who have been restored to proper relationship with God cannot help but value and seek after the will of God, and this will is summarized in the core of the Law. He deals with idolatry (1st Commandment), inappropriate speech (2nd Commandment), adultery (6th Commandment), the roots of theft (7th Commandment), false witness/slander (8th Commandment) and covetousness (9th & 10th Commandments). While ritualistic rules about food and protocol are no longer binding, the center of the Law in the 10 Commandments is. Rather than maintaining distinctions between who is of God and who is not, Christians are to see that such distinctions are misleading, since all are creations of God whom God desires to have in right relationship with him again through Christ (v.11). Our lives are to conform to the will of God but not the whims of mankind, and those who seek to equate those whims with the will of God are dangerously mistaken, however good their intentions might be (2:23).

Luke 12:13-21 – In the presence of a renowned rabbi who is gathering an impressive following due to his teaching and working of miracles (12:1), this man wants Jesus to use his religious prestige to settle an inheritance dispute! Rather than attending to Jesus’ words, rather than weighing the sober reality that following Christ might entail (12:4-12), this man is focused on a financial consideration, as though this was more important than the message Jesus came to teach. While we might be quick to dismiss this man’s words as shallow, how often do we seek God in prayer for things not of eternal consequence? It isn’t that this is necessarily wrong, but perspective is critical!

The parable illustrates this reality. The wealthy landowner nowhere gives thanks to God for his blessings (though we presume the character is intended to be Jewish and therefore would follow prescribed rules for offering sacrifices at the proper harvest times). Nor is his concern for the poor (although as a Jewish character he would no doubt more or less follow the injunctions of Leviticus 19:9-17, which we read a few weeks ago). While the man’s outward appearances conform to the requirements of the Law (presumably) his heart is focused entirely on himself.

Note also that the man’s demise is not painted as the direct result of his heart’s self-centeredness. God knows the length of our days and holds them in his hands. We are properly called to remember this not only during times of great joy and blessing but also during hardship and suffering. God alone knows the day of our death, and therefore our perspective should retain this reality at all times, which will inevitably affect both how we endure suffering and enjoy blessing. These are transient things. We like to function as though they are within our control, and if we just do these things and avoid those things we can chart a trajectory towards a long and happy life. But we must acknowledge that God alone determines these things. While that doesn’t make us passive or inactive, it should lead us to see that all things are in God’s will, not ours. All things are according to his plans and purposes, not ours. James 4:13-17 is instructive here!

The purpose of life is not simply comfort or longevity but proper relationship to God as expressed in obedience to God’s Law – loving God and loving our neighbor. We live our days acknowledging God as the author of all of them. Just as we did not will ourselves into creation we do not fully control either the number or quality of our days. But if we leave this in God’s hands in faith and trust, we will have his peace in all of our days, and into eternity.

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