On the vanities of this world
Last weekend, we had at Mass the absolutely brilliant commentary from the book of Ecclesiastes, whose name so many of us struggle with. The book of Ecclesiastes is less a book on theology and more a philosophical survey of human life and its seeming futility. In its context in the Holy Bible, as included in the Covenant between God and his pilgrim people, Ecclesiastes seems to urge its readers to turn back to God, who alone gives human life its meaning. But, to return to the reading itself from Mass and the following Gospel message about the futile accumulation of riches - quite a feature of our present society and culture - we could meditate on this common theme in the Hebrew Bible, that of the divide between the rich and the poor and the scandal this causes, looking (for example) at Psalm 48(49) in the book of Psalms. This Psalm is numbered 48 in many Catholic Bibles, and 49 in other Bibles. The following is from the old D-R version of the Holy Bible:
Why shall I fear in the evil day?
the iniquity of my heel shall encompass me.
They that trust in their own strength,
and glory in the multitude of their riches,
No brother can redeem, nor shall man redeem:
he shall not give to God his ransom,
Nor the price of the redemption of his soul:
and shall labour for ever,
And shall still live unto the end.
He shall not see destruction,
when he shall see the wise dying:
the senseless and the fool shall perish together:
And they shall leave their riches to strangers:
And their sepulchres shall be their houses for ever.
Their dwelling places to all generations:
they have called their lands by their names.
And man when he was in honour did not understand;
he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them.
This way of theirs is a stumbling-block to them:
and afterwards they shall delight in their mouth.
They are laid in hell like sheep:
death shall feed upon them.
And the just shall have dominion over them in the morning;
and their help shall decay in hell from their glory.
But God will redeem my soul from the hand of hell,
when he shall receive me. Be not thou afraid, when a man shall be made rich,
and when the glory of his house shall be increased.
For when he shall die he shall take nothing away;
nor shall his glory descend with him.
For in his lifetime his soul will be blessed:
and he will praise thee when thou shalt do well to him.
He shall go in to the generations of his fathers:
and he shall never see light.
Man when he was in honour did not understand:
he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them.
This psalm is quite obviously in the same Wisdom genre as the book of Ecclesiastes, for it uses similar language. There is an element of derision for the rich and the powerful, whose influence ends with their passage from this world. The rich cannot even use money to purchase their own redemption from God; money is no bargaining-tool at all for the rich man, and the wise and the fool alike must finally go to their graves and leave their own accumulated possessions to others. Those, in particular, who are here said to be 'in honour' tend to trust in their own abilities and assets and this, says the Psalmist, is a stumbling-block or a foolish self-confidence. Additionally, there will never be a shortage of other people, hangers on, who hang on to the words of these celebrities, who 'delight in their mouth,' or in their speech, the things they say. Those who thus cannot look beyond themselves would inevitably be consumed by the darkness of hell. At this point, God enters the picture, redeeming the Just Man who trusts in him. It all seems to be a rather sad verdict on those who trust not in God but in themselves. Heaven preserve us and those we love from this fate.