A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, August 4th 2019
‘What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.’ (2:22, 23)
The minister’s back from his holidays and he’s not happy about it. Instead of reclining in my chair next to the tent, by the riverside in sunny France, sipping my glass of wine, I’ve had to go back to work. With my happy holiday experiences still fresh in the memory, I came back back to greyer weather and the demands of ministry, so I’m wondering, what’s the point of it all?
As the somewhat gloomy author of Ecclesiastes puts it, ‘What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.’
Now you might want to support and comfort me with words such as, “for goodness sake, Trevor, lighten up and get a life,” and you might not be wrong to do so. All the same, our readings today, from Ecclesiastes and from this parable about a barn-building rich farmer (it only appears in Luke’s Gospel) invite us to ask , “what’s life all about?” What gives meaning and value to our lives?
These are reasonable and relevant questions to ask. After all, a recent survey of a group of people living in North Shields revealed that almost half of them did not believe that the things they do in their life are worthwhile: ‘For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.’ Maybe you know some of the people around here who feel just like that. So what might give their lives, your lives, and my life purpose and meaning?
Can work give our lives meaning? Maybe to some extent, but, if so, is that just down to the pay grade? Why is a top surgeon paid so much less that a premiership footballer? And when a footballer retires and becomes a BBC Match of the Day pundit, is he really worth £440k p.a. – even if he is Alan Shearer!
Alternatively, perhaps we can find meaning through the things we acquire and possess – like books! Having said that, some years back, on the bus home from Newcastle, I chatted to a grandmother and her young granddaughter, Tracy. Tracy had been pressing gran to buy her a toy that had caught her eye whilst they were in town. Gran told me, however, that Tracy already had that toy, back home, but had forgotten, because she possessed so many other toys.
If work and money, if acquisitions and possessions, don’t guarantee a sense of meaning to life, what about reputation and celebrity? Amber Gill, this year’s Love Island winner – she’s from the NE, you know – has certainly achieved celebrity, and with the host of offers that will now come her way, possessions and work will soon follow on. To become a celebrity who is celebrated for being … a celebrity: is that what gives meaning to life?
Now, there’s a real danger here of hypocrisy; criticising others for their good fortune, supposedly on Christian grounds, but more because these are things I can’t have, don’t deserve, or which don’t interest me. You wouldn’t trust me to wield a scalpel on you or pick me for your football team so why should I be paid like a surgeon or like Alan Shearer? Tracy may have had more toys than I ever had, but then I had far more than my parents did when they were children. And Love Island’s audience is heavily represented among 16-34-year-olds in the C2DE socio-economic bracket, so criticism from me may be less the result of Christian insight and more the jealousy of an out-of-touch, culturally middle-class oldie.
All the same, these verses from Ecclesiastes do touch on something, I think. Many people do struggle, at least at times, to believe that their lives have much in the way of meaning. By themselves, work, possessions or celebrity status just don’t cut it. Ecclesiastes, however, is a lot stronger on diagnosing the problem than offering a cure. When we read Ecclesiastes in the light of Jesus’s life and teaching, however, we get some ideas about where to find meaning in our lives today. Look, for example, at this parable Jesus told about a rich farmer.
Does the farmer have work to do that fills up his life? Well crops don’t grow themselves, and although he cannot have done everything himself, he would have had to plan and oversee the planting, reaping and storage of the harvest. Did he have possessions? You bet! Not only did he own land but the crops it produced were so large that he decided to build bigger barns, saying, ‘and there I will store all my grain and my [other] goods.’ (12:18) Does he have celebrity status; a big reputation locally? Yes, probably. He might not have been popular, hoarding food in his barns in an era when hunger was an ever-present possibility for those who lived around him. On the other hand, he’d have known that people could not afford to ignore him, and that would be enough for a lot of people.
So, the rich farmer had work, which paid, he had possessions aplenty, and he had at-least-local celebrity status. What more could you want in life? No wonder he said, ‘[my] soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ (12:19) And God says … ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And these things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (12:20) Maybe he should have read Ecclesiastes: ‘I hated all my toil … seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I have toiled.’ (2:18, 19)
Surely one thing that Jesus’s parable of the rich farmer teaches us is that the meaning of our lives does not reside solely within ourselves and our own doings. Our relationship with others is an essential element in determining the meaning of life. The rich farmer ‘thought to himself, “what should I do … I will do this …. I will pull down … and build … I will store … I will say to my soul … [I will] relax, eat, drink, be merry,” but God said to him, you fool!”’ From beginning to end the man has no thought for God and makes no mention of other people; he thinks he makes all the meaning of his own life. ‘So it is,’ says Jesus, ‘with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (12:21)
What if that man, what if we, lived life, including our work and achievements, our acquisitions and possessions, and our reputations, with God and others in mind as well as ourselves?
Work and achievement: recognise that all your work and achievements take places in the context of God’s work and depend upon what God has done first. In the parable, it’s remarkable that in what was a very religious age the man made no mention of God when he listed all his achievements and intentions. It was all me, me, me. He stored up treasures for himself but was not rich towards God. And yet, all the man’s work depended on God’s work; the man’s life itself, the crops which grew, the land upon which they grew, its place on the planet within the vast ecological systems of God’s creation; all presented as a gift that enabled his human work and achievement. The man was an efficient farmer. Think of the things that you are good at doing and do them, knowing that God has given you these abilities and situations as a gift.
Possessions: so if the ability to do things in life is a gift from God then it follows the possessions we acquire also come to through God’s grace, God’s generosity. As gifts, our possessions are given to us to be enjoyed. In principle, there was nothing wrong in itself in the man’s intention to relax, eat, drink and be merry. It’s what time off, holidays, food and drink, hobbies, interests and a host of other things are for. The problem is that once God, the giver, is erased from the picture, the man sees these things only as his possessions and not also as gifts. They stop being something to be appreciated and instead become something to be hoarded: ‘I will build larger barns and there I will store all my grain and my goods.’
Reputation and celebrity: so, having failed to recognise that his work achievements and his goods come from God as gifts before they can ever be considered his achievements and possessions, what sort of reputation does this give to the rich man? There’s no suggestion in the parable that he is a tyrant, but he’s clearly regarded as a fool: ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you.’ He’s a fool because he has been given so much as a gift and he doesn’t know what he should do with it. Imagine being given a huge box of chocolates as a gift. You know what you’re supposed to do; you’re supposed to share it with others.
The rich man gets given so much and he never so much as mentions sharing any of it with anyone when all around him there would have been people in need. Gifts from God are meant to be enjoyed and shared. He should have been saying “thank you” to God and sharing with others. As it is put elsewhere: ‘he does not realise that just as his soul is in the hands of God, so his surplus should be in the mouths of those who are hungry.’ 1 If you are going to have a reputation, best it should be for recognising God’s gifts in your life and sharing them with others.
So what’s the point of it all? Work and achievements, acquisition and possessions, celebrity and reputation; none of these, nor all of these together, by themselves, will give ultimate meaning to our lives. As Jesus put it, ‘Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (12:15)
It’s when we put such things into the context of knowing God and seeing others that meaning emerges. Recognise what God has given you. Enjoy what God has given you. Share it with others. And in the midst of that your life can take on greater purpose and meaning.
I could say more, but I’ll stop there. After all, time is getting on, and I’ve got work to do.
1 Amy Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 345.