Vanity of Vanities

July 30, 2019 - 12:41pm
Vanity Of Vanities
Unpack the Sunday Mass Readings for August 4

In today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes, we hear that the pursuit of worldly riches is vanity because in the end we have to let them all go.

We can spend our whole lives acquiring things, but at the end of our lives everything for which we have worked so hard goes to another who hasn’t worked for it. This Old Testament reading sets us up for the Gospel reading from Luke, which begins when a man comes to Jesus complaining that his brother hasn’t divided the inheritance equally with him.

Against this backdrop, Jesus gives us the divine perspective on wealth by telling the story of a wealthy man who has a crop so big it doesn’t  fit into his barns. His solution is to tear everything down and build bigger barns so he can store up this great abundance of wealth. But God comes to the rich man and tells him that he will die that very night—and not be able to enjoy this wealth that he has stored up for himself. Jesus ends the story by telling his listeners that this is how it will be for everyone who stores up treasures for himself rather than being rich in what matters to God.

The message here is an emphasis on what really lasts. Acquiring wealth is vanity if we acquire it just for ourselves since nothing we build or save up in this world will last forever. But Jesus tells us that there are things we can do in this life that will have eternal  significance.  If the man in the  Gospel reading had distributed  his extra wealth to the needy, he would have had treasure in heaven. So Jesus is asking us whether, in our saving and our success, we are focusing on earthly success or investing in that which will have an eternal reward.


Unpack the First Reading

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Readers of Ecclesiastes are sometimes shocked by what they take to be its apparent cynicism. Are all things really just vanity? (The Hebrew word means something like a puff of wind.) Is this really what we ought to believe? Is this what the Bible teaches? Aren’t we to value the things of God’s creation as gifts? Isn’t life valuable in all its aspects, if for no other reason than because it comes from God and can lead us to him? The answer to all these questions is “yes!”

We sometimes mistakenly think that since everything in the Bible is inspired by God and true, that everything that is said or done in it is fully approved by God. The Bible is an inspired and true chronicle of the persons, words, and events by which God discloses himself to us. But sometimes the people and the words they speak or the things they do are only partial reflections of and, in some cases, entirely opposed to his will.

Sometimes God teaches us through the partial, sometimes by way of the entirely negative lessons that our human mistakes can provide. Qoheleth (meaning one who speaks in the qahal or the public assembly) represents the true situation of the one who has not yet received the fuller revelation that we have in Christ. The world makes much more sense to us after Jesus enters time and history in a direct way to show us its value. But the basic message of Qoheleth remains sound, the true value of the things of time and history must be measured by the things of eternity, otherwise they are vain.


Unpack the Second Reading

Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11

Looking at this passage from Colossians, we reflect again on the point made about the first reading from Ecclesiastes: We have to understand the shape of history in order to read it rightly. That shape is given in the Creed and turns on three seminal events—creation, redemption, and sanctification. These are all acts of God and unless we understand them we will misjudge almost everything else in human experience.

Creation is a beautiful gift, but one that from the beginning we have often misused. Adam and Eve misused the gift of their freedom and made creation into what St. Paul calls the “world” or the “earthly” (which is creation separated from its Creator). In the Redemption we receive the grace to reconnect creation to its Creator, to “what is above.” If, while here below, we “seek what is above,” where Christ is with the Father, then we can become a part of the very work of renewal that God is working in the world through the Holy Spirit.

Through his sanctifying work we are “renewed,” taking off the “old self ” and putting on the “new self.” We become reunified within, regaining the integrity (the “image of [the] creator”) our first parents lost through sin and rejecting those things “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry”—that would fracture us within and yield division without. In this way we are renewed, too, “for know-ledge” and begin to see the true shape of history and the real values of things, where “Christ is all and in all.”


Unpack the Gospel

Luke 12:13-21

One of the characteristic signs of a deep faith is the ability to embrace the poverty of spirit that Jesus enjoins in the Beatitudes and here in Luke. St. Paul says in Philippians 4:11-13 (RSV): “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens  me.”

There is nothing wrong in rejoicing in plenty. The real danger is the greed that the habit of plenty can so easily engender in us. (How, after all, can we know if we can be content without our goods, if we never actually are?) In the West, and especially in the United States, we are constantly tempted by the spirit of greed. As we saw in the second reading, greed is associated with idolatry, illegitimate worship. When anything—financial security, status, our sexual appetites, celebrity—begins to win our hearts and to become the focus of our desire and efforts, we have begun to turn toward false worship. Orthodoxy, which can mean “right worship” (orthos = straight and doxa = glory), requires not just right thinking about the things of the world but a proper ordering of our desires. We do well to have the doxology always on our lips to protect us from the spirit of greed: “[All] Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...” and to keep us from hearing those frightening words, “You fool,” from the mouth of Jesus.


Reflect & Discuss

Watch the short video reflection for this Sunday’s readings at

The presenter, Tim Gray, mentions that in Isaiah 22:13 the exhortation to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is the slogan of the wicked. In what ways do we see this same theme in today’s world?

As Christians, how ought we respond to the lure of this world’s riches and pleasures?


Reprinted from Opening the Word Leader Guide with permission from Augustine Institute.



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