Proper 13, Year C, St. Anselm’s Church, Nashville

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2).

This morning we have a rare reading from Ecclesiastes, from the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel: in fact, in our Sunday lectionary it’s the only reading from this Old Testament book. The wisdom tradition is larger than just Ecclesiastes, however, and includes Proverbs, some of the Psalms, as well as Apocryphal books like Wisdom and Sirach from which the church reads.

Many of these books are identified with King Solomon, the “teacher” in our reading this morning, and herein lies a clue to the origin of this tradition. Wisdom was first defined as a political virtue, practical wisdom exercised by the king and his court in ruling and governing. Counselors were chosen by the king for their experience, their knowledge of what worked and what did not work in the business of government. So the wisdom tradition began with the practical business of how to get from point A to point B.

In ancient Israel, the king was a judge, the final court in decision making, and was expected to rule wisely. Not only wisely but also justly, according to the wisdom tradition. The practical business of governing is married to the justice of God, in this tradition by what is meet and right according to God’s law. As Wisdom personified in the Book of Proverbs puts it, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15).

We ourselves live in a time when deviation from this norm of wisdom is becoming a new normal in our politics and in our governance. In some cases, our common life in this country looks neither wise nor just. There are many culprits, and the causes are complex; otherwise the solution would be easy and we would have moved on. We find ourselves frustrated in ways that are unexpected and shocking.

Another way of saying this is that human wisdom has limitations. The message of Ecclesiastes this morning brings this home. It’s a pessimistic book among the books of the wisdom tradition. Having heard the message, you may understand why our reading from Ecclesiastes this morning is the only one appointed on Sundays! “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2), as we heard this morning. “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccles. 1:14).

Our reading focuses on the fragility of wisdom manifested in what we would now call our economic life. “One who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it” (Eccles. 2:21). In other words, you can’t take it with you! Yet this meditation on the foolishness of accumulation is just an instance of the overall fragility of wisdom. It’s not just about accumulation but calculation itself, all our wisest and most well-intentioned plans.

All our toil, in whatever field of endeavor, leads to the same end. How unjust is that! Wisdom is to foolishness as light is to darkness, according to Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 2:13), yet as our Psalm puts it, “the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish” (Ps. 49:9). We keep running up against the limitations of human wisdom, and (indeed) the limitations of human justice.

Our Gospel today poses more radical answers that transcend any human wisdom. Notice how we begin with a question that casts Jesus in the role of a wisdom teacher, a judge who adjudicates between the practical demands of justice. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (Lk. 12:13). Jesus refuses, point blank, to play this role. “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Lk. 12:14).

Instead he tells them a story about the limitations of human calculation and accumulation. The story is about a rich man who built barns for his crops but in the end didn’t need them. He was planning for what was out of the range of calculation while he should have been attending to the things of God which were right before him.

That’s a radical call that brings us back to our roots (which is what radical means). This morning Jesus calls us to share this meal at this altar and to rediscover within ourselves the economy of grace, the gifts we have been given and the need to share them. They are, after all, gifts from God. Jesus Christ himself, risen from the dead, is the greatest of these gifts. We should not give up on the need to be wise and just in our political life. The wisdom tradition still has much to teach us. But the call of Jesus Christ will not be subject to the limitations of our powers. His power and wisdom exceed all of ours, and will not be frustrated.

– The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee