The one where Qohelet talks about money and wealth
|13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their own detriment, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.|
In Mexico a group of kids were playing in a dump, and found some interesting metal balls that resembled marbles. They took them home, and over the next few weeks played with them. They and their families started getting sick. Soon their neighbors were getting sick.
It turned out that the marbles were radioactive pellets from a local medical center. The people who were supposed to take care of the waste cut corners, and threw it in the local dump. The shiny marbles were, in the end, instruments of death.
Qohelet looked in the lives of people around him and saw a different poison—wealth.[i] People were hoarding wealth, which had become an instrument of harm rather than of good. The Bible is consistently clear on this point—money, in and of itself, is not bad. But it can lead to great evil. The love of money, as Paul says in Timothy, is the root of all evil. Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. The Old Testament prophets, especially Amos, warn people that there money is going to separate them from the good things that God has for them.
As Qohelet sees it, the problem gets worse. A person accumulates great wealth, and then they lose it. The only thing worse than not having something is having it and losing it. Not only do the rich suffer when they lose their wealth—their children suffer as well.
The real tragedy here is when a person loses that very thing that gives their lives meaning. Remember, in the grand scheme of things, Qohelet sees all things as havel havelim—mere breath. Nothing is permanent. Everything is transitory, and can be lost. The tragedy of life is when we put too much stock in things that cannot sustain us. Again, this is not to say that money is bad. But it cannot sustain us over the long haul.
Now Qohelet is talking specifically about wealth, but this could apply to other things as well—family, a house, good health, pets, hobbies. All is, in the end, transitory. Anything we hoard, anything we value above all other things, has the ability to then poison us.
St. Augustine, after losing a very close friend, found the grief too much to bear, and decided he would never love another person again. That is also a mistake. The point is not to avoid all loves, but to love appropriately, knowing that in the end, all is havel, havelim.
Thoughts and Questions
- If you lost almost all your money, how would it affect your life? What would you be left with?
- In an episode of The Twilight Zone, a man loves to read, but is constantly thwarted by all the people around him—his wife, his boss, his co-workers. To make a long story short, there was a nuclear blast and he is left all alone. The only other intact building in the city is the public library, which for him is better than a gold mine. He is overjoyed, and makes stacks of the books he is planning to read. Finally he can read in peace. Just as he is picking up the first book in the first stack, he trips and breaks his glasses.
Breaking glasses would be a tragedy in any case, but in this case it is almost the ultimate tragedy. Why is the fact that he broke his glasses worse than the fact that he was the sole survivor of a nuclear blast?
[i] Israel was a cross roads for traders, and there were plenty of opportunities for at least some of its citizens to become very prosperous. Ecclesiastes was written in time when there was great wealth in the country, as well as inequality, and that forms part of the backdrop of Qohelet’s musings.