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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Tuesday, August 6, 2019           

Today’s Scripture Reading | Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18–23                 

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied 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. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, 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 toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because 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. 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. This also is vanity. (NRSV)

The Protestant work ethic this is not. There is nothing here about the dignity of work and the satisfaction of a job well done. There’s not even the smug “n’est-ce pas?” of a naked materialistic bargain with work—for “all the stuff.” 

The preacher of Ecclesiastes (sometimes called by the transliterated identifier “Qohelet”) is down on toil because after you’re gone you don’t have any say in what other people do with what you built. And the benefits of your creation are enjoyed by people who didn’t work for it. What’s the point?

The word that Qohelet applies to all this is “vanity.” As in: all work is “in vain.” It’s for naught. It doesn’t matter. The picture I see in my mind as I read this is of my dad in his ink-stained T-shirt, carrying his Igloo cooler out the door for another day of work printing beer cans, a deep sigh escaping his lungs as he squats into the car. 

Work as a fulfilling calling that enriches you and your family materially, provides security for future generations, and rewards you with the virtuous feeling of making the world better is a luxury that most of human civilization has not enjoyed. The multitudes of humanity who lived before, say, industrialization, toiled to survive. They worked so they didn’t starve or freeze to death, and when the grave caught up with them (at an age, on average, younger than I am now), all their work went down with them: vanity. 

Let’s not kid ourselves that millions of God’s children the world over don’t still experience work that way. Let’s be wise enough to take a civilization-length view of our work and to trust God to be present with us and all who toil. 

God of wisdom, be with us and our work, so that we may fulfill our calling as Christ’s disciples. Be with all who toil in obscurity and vanity, that they may know moments of joy and rest and contentment in their work and in you. Amen. 

Written by Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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