Hespeler, 19 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, 22-26, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Luke 18:18-30
“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.” This is the rather bleak view of life that seems to lie behind much of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.
Traditionally the book was said to have been written by none other the great King Solomon himself, but most scholars who have studied it have concluded that the book
never actually claims to have been written by Solomon, though it
might have been dedicated to him. Instead, the book seems to have been written
by somebody named Qoheleth, but even that doesn’t come across in our English
Bibles because the name, “Qoheleth,” usually gets translated, wrongly, as
teacher or preacher, and so the name actually only appears in a footnote in
your pew Bible.
On one level it doesn’t matter who wrote the book, of course, but on another it kind of does. I mean, it doesn’t matter what the person’s name was, but it matters what kind of person he was. (I am going to assume that Qoheleth was a man but his gender is not really what matters either.) It especially matters what kind of a person he was for a book like Ecclesiastes because this book seems to come out of the very personal struggles of the writer more than almost any other book in the Bible.
What, then, do we know about Qoheleth as a person? He leaves a number of clues in his work. The first thing we can say about him is that he is a man with some experience of pain. “For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.” These are the words of someone who knows what he is talking about when he’s talking about pain.
I suspect that, at some point in his life – at some key point in his development – Qoheleth experienced some very real, frightening and overwhelming pain. I don’t know what kind of pain. It might have been physical, but my guess is that it was emotional trauma that he went through, which can often leave even longer lasting scars.
Now pain is, as Qoheleth says, a part of life. None of us goes through life without experiencing some trauma and all of it is painful and damaging. But there are some people for whom the trauma hits at a moment when they are simply not prepared to deal with it, maybe because of their age or their developmental stage. I believe that that is what happened to Qoheleth and that it left some deep and permanent scars.
You see, there is a certain personality type that tends to arise in that circumstance – the personality type represented by Qoheleth. Certainly Qoheleth behaves in the way that people of that personality type typically do. The common response of a person who has been overwhelmed in early life by pain is to hide from any further pain. It seems the obvious thing to do. You have been hurt once and deeply so you decide that you really want to avoid any future pain no matter what you have to do.
How did Qoheleth do that? How did he try to block out the pain? Well, he tells us, doesn’t he: “I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself. ...I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine... I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks... I bought male and female slaves... I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.” From this description it seems clear that Qoheleth is seeking to distract himself from his pain with an excess of, well, everything.
To put this in traditional Christian language, Qoheleth is distracting himself with gluttony. You may have heard of gluttony, it is one of the church’s official seven deadly sins, but you may have thought of it as only having to do with people who overindulge on food. But the meaning of the word is much larger than that.
God has given us so many good gifts in this world – things like food, drink, sexuality, dance and so many more. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with enjoying these gifts in appropriate ways and in reasonable measure; the glutton is the one who goes overboard in indulgence in anything or perhaps in everything – so much so that it becomes harmful to themselves or to others. But please do not fall into the traditional stereotype of gluttony to think that it is always about overeating. Do not assume, for example, that people who are overweight always have this personality type. Nevertheless, this type exists and you probably know people who fit into it.
The most common underlying cause of pathological gluttony is the avoidance of pain. That part of the struggle is what I hear Qoheleth talking about in our reading this morning from the Book of Ecclesiastes. And I don’t want to be too hard on people who are like Qoheleth. In general, they are terrific people to be around. They are always fun and usually very funny. Humour is, alongside overindulgence, one of the things they use to distract from pain. Indeed, I would suggest that some of the greatest comedians of all times fit into this type of personality: Curley Howard, John Candy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, John Pinette.
There are all kinds of wonderful things about this personality type, therefore, but there is also a dark side underneath the jovial surface. In fact, all of those comedians I just named to you were not only extremely funny but also died tragically in ways related to their tendency to overindulge. Therefore, if this personality type describes you or somebody that you love, there is likely some work that needs to be done – work that God needs to do in a person’s life – in order that there might be wholeness and healing.
In many ways, I think that Qoheleth’s book, the book that we call Ecclesiastes, recounts that man’s personal journey towards wholeness with God’s help. And I believe that he found wholeness at least in certain key places in his life. One indication of that is the passage that we read together responsively. It is the best known passage in the entire book and rightly so. It lays out a profound truth that is often very hard for people of Qoheleth’s personality type to hold on to: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
You see, for people of this personality type, the strong tendency is to think that every time is a time to laugh, to dance, to gather, to love or to speak. There is, in other words, no time available to stop indulging in the gifts of life because, when you stop, you let the pain in and the last thing that a Qoheleth wants is to allow the pain to be felt. That is why this part of Qoheleth’s book is so important. In it we see the evidence that he did eventually find the balance that is a sign of wholeness for people of this personality type. The main task of such people is not to abandon the laughter, dancing and celebration that makes them such wonderful people to be around. The task is to make, alongside all of that, a time to deal with the pain of life in a healthful way.
People of this type do often try to improve and complete themselves through things like encouragement and positive thinking and reinforcement. This can be quite helpful for other types of personalities, but it has limited benefits for people like Qoheleth. They will not find the healing they need until they develop the capacity to grieve and mourn and to process the pain that they have suffered in their past and that may still be part of their present life as much as they try to ignore it. The simple fact that Qoheleth can allow himself the time to weep, to mourn, to die and to lose is an indication that he is on the road to becoming all that God created him to be.
There is one other task that a Qoheleth often has to work through, but it is not something that is easily seen in the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is one character in the New Testament, however, who seems to fit into this personality type. He is not named but is simply introduced as a rich young ruler who comes to Jesus to ask him how he can be a part of the kingdom of God. We are not told enough about him to observe his lifestyle but he is described as being extremely wealthy and so I don’t think that it is a stretch to imagine him living an extremely indulgent life.
Whatever exactly is going on in his life, Jesus seems to be able to evaluate the man instantly and to see what he needs most to reach his full potential as a human being. That is why Jesus says to him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” This is the most difficult but also the most redeeming thing that a Qoheleth can do. An abundance of wealth and possessions that provide the means to distract you with continual over-the-top consumption will only serve to keep you from dealing with the things that you need to deal with. Jesus is right that transformation will begin when you begin to get rid of all your stuff.
The young ruler who came to Jesus was unwilling to take that step. He left upset and angry. The price was just too high. But if only he had been willing to take that risk, I think that Jesus knew that amazing discipleship would have followed.
The greatest historical example of the potential of taking such a step is a man named Francisco who lived in Italy seven centuries ago. He was a very wealthy man who lived all his early life just like Qoheleth – a life of constant revelry, overconsumption and laughter. But one day he met a leper and heard the voice of Jesus challenging him to do the same thing that he had challenged the rich young ruler to do. Unlike the ruler, however, Francisco heeded that call and literally gave everything away. And with that act he started a movement that had a profound impact on the history of the world – an impact felt to this very day. Never underestimate what a redeemed Qoheleth can do – a redeemed Qoheleth like Francisco or, as we know him to day, Francis of Assisi.
The particular gift of a redeemed Qoheleth is joy. So long as they are tied to their diversions and hiding from their pain, the best that they can offer is humour and levity (which is fun, of course, but it has its limits). But when they have gotten in touch with their pain and let go of their dependence on consumption, a powerful joy can be released that transcends the power of even the darkest times of life to destroy us. This was the remarkable thing that everyone noticed about Francis of Assisi. Such powerful joy can set so many free.
I am so very thankful for all of the Qoheleths that I have known. They have made me laugh. They have taught me so much about enjoying life and all of God’s gifts. God loves them. And God doesn’t want to take away the things that make them who they are – especially not their enjoyment of life. God wants to make their joy complete, wants to help them to face their pain and free them from the power it has over them. If you are a Qoheleth, I pray that you would allow God to do that work in you. If you know a Qoheleth, you are blessed. Stand alongside him or her as they make that journey to discovering all that they were meant to be.