How to be Happy
Eighteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Gregory Murphy finds an answer to Ecclesiastes in the teachings of Christ.
Is the author of our first reading a pessimist or a realist? ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ might suggest the former: that all our efforts are in the end unstable and futile – a breath of wind blowing dust around. The title he gives himself is anonymous: either a person who calls or convokes an assembly (hence the name ‘Ecclesiasticus’ from the Greek version), or perhaps one who assembles sayings (a harmless drudge). The opening title identifying him as ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’ (Solomon), is a literary device, as most Wisdom literature in the Bible was ascribed to the legendarily wise Solomon. At any rate he has tried, and wearied, of various ways to happiness, from the pursuit of wisdom to sensual pleasure and found all of this profitless. He accepts God as Creator, ruler and goal of human destiny but derives little comfort from that: God and God’s ways being in his view unknowable. This may reflect the collapse of the old certainties following the Exile, when the book was likely composed. Yet his uncomfortable faith may strike a chord with ourselves in an increasingly disordered and violent world: many of our certainties have been challenged by the recent pandemic, by the outbreaks of war, and by extreme climactic conditions driven by human activity. We, too, might search for God in all of this.
However, I would be inclined to view him as a realist: emphasising the futility of much human activity. One of our most persistent illusions or idolatries in our technocratic society is a kind of magical thinking, an assumption that we can find a solution to all the problems we have generated without much altering our present way of living. This increasingly seems dubious, and I think Ecclesiasticus would have agreed with that.
To accept God’s invitation to communion, to sharing his life, is to learn to live differently. Jesus emphasises this in the parable he tells in the gospel, after declining to be judge in what seems to be a family dispute based on avarice. He tells his audience (and ourselves) to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, warning that life does not consist or can be measured in an abundance of possessions. Luke had three words for ‘life’ at his disposal: the first, referring to quantitative life (i.e. how long one lived, status gained and goods acquired), is most relevant to our consumer society, but this is not the one Jesus uses. Nor does he use the one which referred to qualitative life (i.e. the values and relationships that constitute personhood). Rather Jesus uses the word for life found frequently in John’s gospel: the life that is a share in God’s life offered to us, which we do not earn or merit but receive freely from God through Jesus. This life is relational, rather than material, and produces peace and joy. This is the solution to the conundrum posed by Ecclesiasticus: how can we find happiness? This is why Paul, too, reminds the Colossians that ‘greed is worshipping a false god’, an idol, which will never give us happiness.
The rich man in the parable is condemned as a fool precisely because he isolates himself from human relationships, and relationship with God, which alone can make us happy. He was rich, the opening of the parable tells us, because he had a good harvest from his land – in other words, this was an inheritance or a gift. But he cannot or will not acknowledge this. His celebration of his good fortune is all about himself, though he has done little to earn it. In that he models some in our contemporary society who reap huge personal gains from the resources of public investment and infrastructure, but nonetheless often seem to be labouring under the world-weariness characterised by Ecclesiasticus. The concluding verse makes clear that Jesus did not condemn wealth as such, but the attitude of mind that wealth consists in accumulating stuff, rather than forming loving relationships, especially with God, who alone can satisfy our longings.
Image: Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick (Charlotte, North Carolina) – stained glass, Christ and the rich young man (detail) by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons