Join us this Sunday
Jason Newman • September 21, 2020
We are back to the All Access Parable Tour Bus! Luke 18 is our destination today!
In the study of literature, you come across lots of different devices that writers use to express ideas and enhance their writing. Good writers (and public speakers) use these devices to help us understand an intellectual point of view. Sometimes they are used to have an emotional effect. And invariably they improve the flow and pacing of the writing or delivery in public speaking.
In the two parables we are looking at today, we find Jesus using a literary device commonly known as contrast. Jesus takes two persons in each parable and shows the opposition between the two persons. It is not a point-by-point contrast. Rather is it a subject-to-subject contrast. Jesus is trying to heighten the drama and imprint the lesson on our minds by using contrast in these two parables.
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, ESV)
The point is spelled out in the very first verse – pray and not lose heart. Then Jesus uses contrast – the judge/widow to God/us. The widow had a claim that the judge kept rejecting. He finally relented because of her continual harassment. Notice Jesus’ question, “Will he delay?” The contrast is not that God gives in because we pester him. Rather it is the idea that by constant contact with God that we learn how to pray, and that God answers speedily those that are in constant contact. That is what Jesus means by the final question. Will he find faith? Those that have faith are in constant contact with God.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, ESV)
The contrast is easy to see here – Pharisee and the tax collector. The contrast is not on their respective occupations. Rather the contrast is on their respective attitudes. One is arrogant. One is humble. One lists all the good. One just says I am a sinner. The implied question is which one are you? One went away justified and in a relationship with God. One did not.
In both parables the purpose of the contrast is make you question yourself. Which one am I? What am I doing? What am I thinking?
Jason Newman • August 13, 2020
I have always wondered what one of those bus tours in Hollywood would be like.
You know – the person at the front of the bus saying things like “On your left is the house of Cary Grant. He starred in such movies as Arsenic and Old Lace and To Catch a Thief.”
Or maybe “This is the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater. We will stop for half an hour for pictures.” I would want to find Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart’s handprints! Or C-3PO and R2-D2’s footprints!
You get to ride on the bus, take pictures. You have a map telling you the route of the bus so that you can be ready to take the pictures of your favorite landmarks. That is somewhat I feel like our studying of the parables will be like. You will have a roadmap, I will point out the ohh and ahh moments, you can take pictures to study more later. We may get out of the bus an in-depth look at particular parables, but we won’t do that for every one of them.
So, I, Jason, your illustrious tour guide, welcomes you to the All Access Parables Tour Bus!
Your map of our journey will look like this. Luke has a collection of parables that only he records. We will tour them first. Then there is a collection found in Matthew. Then there a series of parables found in all three Gospels.
As we move forward to the on-ramp of the Highway to Holiness, (see Isaiah 35:8) let us talk about some background info to help us understand parables.
Approximately one-third of Jesus' teaching is in parables. The Greek word for parable appears fifty times in the New Testament. Forty-eight of those are in the Gospels, twice in Hebrews -- 9:9 and 11:19. Both of these texts help us understand what parable is so we will turn to those now.
Hebrews 9:8-9 reads “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” The word “symbolic” is parable in Greek. The word is “figure” in KJV
He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. Hebrews 11:19. The ESV translates the Greek παραβολή as “figuratively speaking” and the KJV just has “figure.”
The idea of figure or symbolic in both of these texts is that we view in comparison the parable to the debate or question being asked. It is a lesson of value and the hearer must catch the analogy if the listener is to be instructed. An important distinction needs to be made here. A parable is different than a fable in that a parable deals with real things and their real attributes. A fable may deal with real things, but a fable may attribute things to the characters that they do not possess.
Another contrast can be drawn to a proverb. Peter uses the common word for proverb in 2 Peter 2:22, What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” This is a maxim, a quick byword. There is a tautology in its construction. Great powerful and visualization accompanies it, but it is once sentence and done.
One final thought. Perhaps a word of caution. The parables are clever. They are carefully constructed. They are powerful in their arresting power. But they are not the lesson. Parables point to something else. They serve as a mirror to show us the Kingdom of God. As such, the parables help us understand and grasp the nature of the Kingdom of God.
And here is the caution – even the disciples struggled at moments with what Jesus was trying to teach in using a parable. In Mark 4, we see just such a moment. The disciples ask Jesus what does the Parable of the Sower mean? He not only explains it but quotes Isaiah 6:9,10 to show that only those that respond to the teaching will understand the parable. The people of Isaiah’s day, the people listening to Jesus, and people today have hard hearts and therefore cannot understand the meaning of the parable.
Parables hide the truth to reveal the truth. For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.” (Mark 4:22) Even though some will respond with a hardness of heart and lack of hearing, parables should elicit prayer, reflection, and then action in response to the parable. I guess that is what I am warning or cautioning against. Do not just read the parable for the fascination or spectacle of the parable by itself. For the parable to have its full use, it must move you to action!
Get your cameras out! We are coming to our first parable!
Jason Newman • July 23, 2020
Let us recap where we have been.
The indifference of all things. The universe as it is constructed simply does not care about you. The very laws of physics and biology that keep us alive one moment will kill us the next.
Death is certain for all. Everyone dies. What more needs to be said.
Progress is a lie. Time is deceptive. It seems to be our friend – telling us that things will be better tomorrow. But it just marches to the same tune as indifference and death. It does not care about you.
And evil. Humanity chooses to do evil – sometimes even when it is easier to do the right thing.
Solomon comes to the end of it all and asks, where is God in all of this? “When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” (Ecc. 8:16-17)
Why is Solomon in such despair? Solomon acknowledges God exists. But that is as far as Solomon gets. In Solomon’s mind, the logic looks something like this
1. God exists.
2. God is powerful enough to make the world
3. God is intelligent enough to design the world
4. God is creative enough to make the world full of incredible beauty
5. But we have nothing to indicate that God is good, loving, or that he cares about us.
Is it possible to believe in God and still live a life of despair? Solomon does. The question is why? The wisest man who ever lived – living in hopelessness and depression.
Solomon is not a fool – he does not deny God exists. For Solomon, God is like the moon – he exists – but he is there – not here. God is being – only Am. Solomon sees God purely through nature and that is like seeing God as his back is turned to us.
Unfortunately, I know some people who say they believe in God who may be living here as well. They are so full of despair. They see no point in life.
If you are one of those believers, do not despair. Ecclesiastes is depressing. It is supposed to lead us to despair. It is supposed to show us that Scripture is the mouth of God. It is supposed to show us that Jesus is the face of God. If Ecclesiastes just shows us a silhouette of God, then Jesus is the face that fills the dark outline.
Jason Newman • July 18, 2020
Officiating weddings is one of the true joys of being a minister. The pre-planning, the counseling, the buying of the license, and the rings. The rehearsal, the decorating, the ceremony! What fun!
That still moment just before the wedding march starts. The groom is nervous! Everyone stands! The bride enters! For a single moment, all is right in the world! Everyone is happy! Joy! Wonder! But in all the happiness, there is one unwanted guest. It just sits over there, biding its time. This guest does not need to be showy today, because this guest plays the long game. That guest's name is Evil.
Indifference, Death, and Time were just Solomon setting us up for the bigger issue. Indeed, each of those things can be thought of as sub-categories of the Evil. Solomon is so aware of the problem Evil poses that he brings it up three different times in Ecclesiastes.
Evil shows up in many ways – trouble, anguish, financial disaster, disease, death of a child, or spouse – call it what you will. As a minister, a teacher, a theologian, I get asked from time to time, “Why does evil exist?” This question is the greatest challenge to Christians. This question even keeps Christians from growing in their faith.
It may help to define our terms here. A standard dictionary definition of evil is “the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing.” This however is not precise enough for our purposes. A man that is suffering the loss of his home because he gambled his paycheck away is not suffering evil. We need a more precise definition of evil. A better definition is “serious unjustified harm inflicted on sentient beings.” Within that definition, we can then also make two distinctions or classes of evil. We will call the first natural evil, which is evil that is not caused by humans. The second we will call moral evil, that is, evil caused by human means.
We must define God next. There are two ways to define God. One is in the purely philosophical sense. This definition usually centers on God as the First Cause or as The Perfect Being. For the Christian, this seems to be well short of an acceptable definition. It simply gives too much ground and opens up attacks that can be answered from Biblical revelation.
For the Christian, the definition of God would be Creator and Ruler of the Universe, a Supernatural Being, Wholly Other, but revealing Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, of which the Bible is the record. Any theodicy or defense that would not consider the revelation of Christ may be philosophically correct but not Biblically correct.
The next thing to consider is that lots of people use what is called “The Free Will defense” as the reason for evil. Over the centuries there have been lots of philosophical formulations of that idea. But as I noted above, to be philosophically correct is not what we are looking for. We are looking for being theologically and Biblically correct.
To just formulate a logical explanation of evil does a disservice to both the lay Christian and the lay Atheist. For both parties, their belief is not founded on logic. The belief or non-belief in God is transrational. My meaning in this is that belief or non-belief in God defies logic or rational reasons. When a person gives assent to the idea of God, we say that they come to faith. If they were once a theist, we say they lose the faith. If it takes faith to believe in the existence of God, then why are we trying to rationalize a defense against those who do not?
Second, talking about God in the abstract damages or ignores the revelation that was given in the person of Jesus Christ. If the definitions of Christ as the God-man given at Nicaea and Chalcedon are correct, then everything we need to know and all the questions is answered in that revelation. Looking outside of that revelation takes you away from Christianity. Christianity must be Christocentric, not just Deist-centric.
This is the point of John 1:1-18. The logos became flesh. God Incomprehensible became comprehensible. Taking logos in its fullest meaning, “the Word became flesh” is more than just a pithy religious statement. It is a combination of metaphysics, language, and religion into one person - Christ. The very thought of God, the fire of Heraclitus, the knowledge of Plato’s Theaetetus, the Universal Law of the Stoics, the Wisdom of the Hebrew writers, the hopes of all humanity all combined into one form, one man, Jesus Christ. We do not need some rationalized, sanitized version of God to defend. God has given us the version He wants us to understand and defend in the person of Jesus Christ.
Returning to our couple at the beginning, when they asked me to perform the ceremony, I set up a time to meet with them as a couple to do some premarital counseling. One of the things that you listen for is for the idea of coercion in the idea of marriage. Did either side feel pressured to get married? Are they going into the relationship of their own free will?
As Christians, we need to look at the entrance of evil the same way. There was no coercion to turn away from the command of God and eat of the fruit. Just as the couple is choosing to get married, so Adam chose to eat the fruit.
Some philosophers respond here would be that God could have made man that would not have taken the fruit. On both sides, there is this debate about whether such a creature or place could exist. This is a red herring, a sophism. It takes away from both the reality of now and the reality of the revelation given to us. Out of the Genesis account, we can only be sure of two things. One is that evil exists. The other is that God did not crush humanity in His rebellion.
There is however another argument given by the atheist at this point. If God is all-good, all-powerful, all-wise then couldn’t He have come up with a way to get rid of the evil? He did in the Incarnation/Cross event of Christ! This is not just simply a religious statement. It also has profound philosophical implications for the problem of evil as we have presented it.
God gives such honor and regard to man’s free will that the death of Christ takes place without any interference from God. We see the problem of evil not residing in God but humanity. While this may absolve God of blame, this does nothing for his goodness. Yet in the Cross, we see that He loves and honors man to the point of allowing His death. This shows His goodness in entering and suffering with the ones with whom evil is an everyday issue.
Christ did not use supernatural means to escape the cross. (Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?) Nor did he use political means (My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servant's fight). We can see that God has honored man’s free will and freedom to do what man wants with that freedom.
How then does this help us with our problem of evil? Let us go back to the wedding couple. They married of their own free will. Let us jump fast forward five years, and he commits adultery. She finds out and says, “A great evil has been done!” She is right. All her friends gather around and tell her to leave the bum. What does she do? No one would fault her for leaving him. Yet is that her only option? No, she can stay and honor the vows that she made, “…for better, for worse…till death do us part.” Now she is going to suffer public shame. If there are financial losses (loses his job, lawyers, and irate husbands) she will bear with them. God did something similar.
In making humanity with a free will, God committed Himself to allow and even bearing the consequences of that free will. God could have made something or someone other than what He did, but the fact is He did not. God -- like our fictional wife -- must be willing to bear whatever consequences come.
At this point, you may object and say that she is a fool and the husband will do it again. While that is a nice assumption and emotive response, you have no way of knowing if that is the case. The wife has just given a new definition to Love, Truth, and Strength. It is a Love that sees beyond the hurt of the moment and what could yet be. It is the Truth that freedom of will does exist and not everything is causally determined. It is Strength in that she is willing to be vulnerable enough to see what his actions will now be.
God has done the same thing. The stumbling block with both the wife and God is in the definition of power and wisdom. Power is always looked upon as a destructive force, the eradication of the current circumstances. Wisdom is looked on as a changing of course, that the original course is now hopelessly lost.
In the Cross of Christ God showed that power is not destructive but redemptive. He showed that the wisdom is not in eradication, but Incarnation. The logic of God is not in an Aristotelian or Newtonian sense. The problem of evil exists only for those who will not accept the revelation of God in Christ. Ecclesiastes points out the problem. The rest of scripture gives us the solution.
Jason Newman • July 09, 2020
After reading my last post, my wife looked at me and said “Well, that was a depressing read!” I completely agree with her. But here is an even more depressing thought – we are only through 2 of the five thoughts of Solomon about the vanity of life. Three more to go!
In our last post, we looked at indifference and death. Solomon pointed out that the universe does not care about one living organism. And death comes to all. Rich. Poor. Intellectual. Simple. Young. Old.
The next thing that Solomon wants us to think about is progress. Progress is a lie we tell ourselves to keep us from seeing the truth – there is nothing new under the sun. We look at technology as progress. But do cell phones and computers and microwave ovens and Facebook make our lives any better? Add anything you wish to that list. They change our lives. I will grant you that. But whatever upside is gained, there is a downside. The natural order of the universe is entropy. Disorder. Breakdown.
Solomon observed this in the famous passage in chapter 3. “For everything there is a season” A time for love, a time to hate. A time for peace, a time for war. A time to be born, a time to die. What do we gain from any progress? It ultimately slides to disorder and breakdown.
But we can look at this on a deeper level. We think that progress is good because we see it as the unfolding of Time. Time is the fundamental and inescapable feature of all our life under the sun. We experience Time in our spiritual and physical bodies – our souls are in time just as much as our bodies. But Time is not our friend.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Time fools us to think there is always more – but death comes anyway.
But amid all this gloom Solomon bursts forth in one piercing shaft of light. It cuts through the darkness so quickly that you may miss it. Solomon writes that God has put eternity in man’s heart. (Ecc. 3:11) What does he mean by that?
We live in Time just as the fish lives in the sea. But the fish never complains about being wet. Yet we complain about Time. We never have enough. We would like to go back and redo things. We would like to know how the future unfolds. But Time as we know it does not work like that. It marches toward one destination and one only.
Still, there is this hunger for eternity. There is a desire for…no... it more than desire for…it is a knowing… that another Land exists. In that Land of Yonder we will live a different life. One without Time. One without Death.
Christians affirm that this Land exists. We sing about it. We preach about it. We pray for it to come quickly. We also say that Death is no longer our enemy – that Death is a conquered foe. That begs the question though of why do we still live like Time and Death are the most real things in our lives? We fear tomorrow. We cannot escape the past. we fret about how and when we will die.
We have not embraced the confidence of Eternity. The true message of the Gospel is lost on us. And if it is lost on us… what hope is there for anyone outside the Faith?
Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon. EMI Records, 1973. CD.
Jason Newman • July 02, 2020
My grandfather died of brain cancer. I was 18 at the time and it was my first interaction with that dreadful word cancer. Since then, I have had several interactions with it. It is always a formidable and frightening foe.
As we push into our reflection on Ecclesiastes, Solomon wants us to fully understand how pointless life is. He has already described the pointlessness of wisdom, pleasure, power, altruism, and religion. And you would think that is enough. But those five things being pointless just make life crappy. The next five are even worse.
Which brings us back to cancer. When my grandfather got cancer, it first affected his thinking abilities. Then his personality. Then his motor functions. And finally, death.
These five thoughts of Solomon are like that. It starts small. It is just a line on the computer screen. But the more you think about it the more it starts to affect things—emotions, thinking ability, a purpose for living. If you follow through you move to listlessness. Then spiritlessness. Then death.
The five things that Solomon considers are these:
The indifference of all things
Death is certain for all
Progress is a lie
God is there but not here
What do I mean when I say the indifference of all things? Think about all the organisms in the universe. Plant and animal, big and small, from plankton to the blue whale, from the amoeba to humanity. Let that number be x. Then ask the universe which of those the universe cares enough about to keep alive. The answer is again x. Not x+1 nor x-1. The issue is not that bad things happen to good people. The real issue is those bad things happen to good people just as frequently as bad people.
Solomon writes about the indifference this way, “It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.” (Ecc. 9:2)
Death. If we doubted the indifference of the universe, here is the truth – all die. Pascal wrote, “The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.” Underneath all our fancy or not so fancy dress. Despite all our intelligence or lack thereof. Death comes.
Alexander the Great is said to have given instructions that one arm was to be left exposed out of his coffin with an open hand. The man who conquered the whole world left the world with what he came.
If the point of a novel is the ending, then the point of life is vanity with a vengeance. The bell tolls for us all. “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecc. 3:19-20)
I would like to close with two thoughts.
The first is we need to go no further to see the absolute insignificance of everyone everywhere. If the universe does not care and death comes to us all, what is the point? Sometimes we get so upset about drugs, sex, other value systems, power politics. But what is the real issue? If people are looking for something to give them meaning, why do we get so upset with the things they are trying to find the meaning in? You say you have a better answer, then give it.
The second is that everyone dies. The Buddhist and the Christian. The old and the young. Rich and poor. Single. Married. Sinner. Saint. Good health. Bad health. Christians say they have a purpose and point -- maybe even life after death. Yet – they live in the same despair and same listlessness that afflicts the rest of the world. I wonder sometimes whether Christians believe what they say they believe.
Jason Newman • June 25, 2020
We have two Dachshunds. They are the best little pups ever! But occasionally you step in something and while you may not notice it outside, everyone else notices when you go inside! I would like to suggest that something like that happens with the two toils we have yet to consider from Ecclesiastes – altruism (working for others) and religion. Just like having my dogs around, there are lots of things Christians like about altruism and religion. But we do not notice the crappy things until someone points them out.
Lets us recap where we have been. Solomon tells us all of life is vanity. But before he tells us about the vanity of life, about how pointless it is, he tells us about five toils – or five ways of interpreting life – to try and make sense of it. In the preceding post, we looked at power, pleasure, and wisdom as ways of interpreting life. We will now move on to the final ways Solomon talks about interpreting life.
They are cute! They are fun! They run in the yard, they play, they cuddle. But the occasional mess you step in leads you to think about other things. The feeding. The bathing. The fleas. The trips to the vet. While it is easy to say that they are dogs so the feelings of meaningless are understandable, what about when we ask those same questions of people?
We feed them. We clothe them. We try to help them have a better future. But Solomon comes to a very unpopular conclusion. If wisdom, power, and pleasure are pointless for me, how is me giving them to someone else any less pointless? Multiply any number by zero and you still get zero! How can I show others the meaning of life if I do not know it myself? What good does helping others do if it does not help them? If I am a fool for following these things, are others any less than a fool for accepting these things?
Solomon concludes, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (Ecc. 2:18-19)
The final toil Solomon considers is religion. If we do not like the hard conclusions Solomon draws about helping people Christians like the conclusions he draws about religion even less.
Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. And in a sense, it is his undoing (and our hope for moving on past the pointlessness and vanity of the toils). Solomon looks around and sees everything under the sun. And by that calculation, God is little more than an ephemeral idea, an unknown First Cause, a Something who stands behind everything. But that word is the problem.
The universe does not seem to care about anything. Bunny rabbits are cute. But coyotes kill bunny rabbits. Babies are a joy and a wonder. So full of life and promise. Until that baby is diagnosed with cancer. Bad things happen to good people. But that is just the beginning. Good things happen to bad people. That is the same conclusion that Solomon came to as well. “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” (Ecc. 7:14)
But Solomon is not done. He takes it a step further. “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?”
Why be good? Why be bad? Just keep your head down. Do your part. Do not live a life that sets you apart (we assassinate our heroes just as often as we kill our villains). The universe does not care about you, so you should not care about anything either. Give lip-service to God, but do not pay him much attention other than that.
That is why I started with the idea of something on your shoes. Formally, Christians reject both of those conclusions. That helping people is pointless. That we do not believe in a religion that tells us to keep our head down.
But the reality? We smell what helping others costs people. We smell what believing in God costs people. And so we just do not get a dog. We just do not help others. And we do religion...but only so far as is socially acceptable.
So how do we move forward? I mentioned that Solomon’s undoing was the very way forward. Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” a lot.
There is one thing under the sun that he has not considered. That is a revelation. Revelation shows us a God of love (in contrast to the God of experience). Revelation shows us a God who is concerned about the needs of the people around us.
But most of all, revelation tells us of a God who is not just a force in the world, but who is a person who loves, cries, and hurts. But Solomon is not quite ready for that conclusion. He is not done with the pointless vanity of this life. He is not ready for revelatory love until he loves himself.
Jason Newman • June 18, 2020
At the end of the last post, we concluded that all life is crap. Solomon breaks down all this crap in Ecclesiastes in two different ways. He does not just write about the vanities of life (of which he lists five) he also talks about five toils. We will cover the actual vanities in the coming posts, but we need to understand what Solomon means by toils.
Our Preacher uses toil as a term to define our attempts to find or make meaning. For Solomon, each of the following is a failure. They gain something – like the gaining of money. But they do not get to the real issue – the gaining of meaning.
Before we look at the five toils, Solomon does something else we need to think about. He lays out a very logical argument. It reads something like this:
All toil is under the sun
And everything under the sun is vanity
Therefore, all toil is vanity
While I can appreciate the beauty of syllogism, to put it that succinctly is almost obscene. Toil is more than just hard work. It would be any work, all and everything we do. Every lifestyle, every value, every candidate for the definition of meaning. Solomon is getting ready to show that his five broad categories are all equally vain. And the poetic beauty of “under the sun.” Solomon is trying to get us to see that part of the vanity is that it is common to all humanity. No one is exempt.
One more note before we turn to the five toils. The five that Solomon mentions can be found in other theological and philosophical writing. They can be found in Hinduism’s “Wants of Man,” Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ Consolation on Philosophy. Aquinas writes about them in his Treatise on Happiness, Kierkegaard in Stages of Life’s Way. Even secular philosophers see the same list, Aristotle in Ethics, Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, Sartre in Nausea. And we must mention that novels from Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, and Camus deal with two or three at a time.
The five toils are:
1. Wisdom (a life to fill your mind)
2. Pleasure (a life to fill your body)
3. Wealth and Power (a life to fill your pocket)
4. Duty/Honor/Social Service (a life to fill your conscience)
5. Piety/Religion (a life to fill your spirit)
Keeping in mind Solomon is pursuing the meaning and purpose of life, we will look at the life and toil of wisdom. In Ecc. 1:12-18 Solomon writes of his findings. His conclusion, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” The words of Socrates seem fitting here, “Philosophizing is a rehearsal for death”
But Solomon does not just consider wisdom. In the same passage, he says folly and foolishness are the same as wisdom. Both wisdom and folly are striving after the wind (vs. 17).
Pleasure. If wisdom is the mountaintop, pleasure is the valley. It is easy to get to. Indeed, most people use happiness and pleasure as interchangeable words and thoughts. Wisdom can be mysterious; pleasure is plain and easy to come by. But one thing Solomon is clear about – especially for Solomon since he had it all – is that pleasure is not the meaning of life.
Solomon considers pleasure in Ecc. 2:1-11. He says that he did not keep anything his eyes desired from himself. He kept no pleasure from his heart. But his conclusion? “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (vs. 11)
Pleasure simply for the pursuit of pleasure leads to boredom. Sometimes the pursuit of pleasure becomes an addiction – stronger and stronger is needed because the same is boring. I need more! Always needing more cannot be the meaning of life. Boredom surely is not the meaning of life!
We will consider one more before close. Solomon mentions wealth and power in connection with wisdom and pleasure. In 2:8 he writes that “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.” No Hebrew, no king of the Hebrews, wielded more power than Solomon (until Jesus came). Solomon was the absolute of everything. Military. Economics. Territory. Wealth.
And was does Solomon learn? Money can buy anything that money can buy. It gives power over other people. And power tries to control things – and it succeeds very well at that. But control of things is not meaning. Meaning is not something we can control. Meaning must be freely given and freely received. It must be a gift. It is love.
But we run ahead. We are not ready for that conclusion yet. We have not plumbed the fullness of the problem yet. So do not think about love yet.
So, wisdom is dung. Pleasure is dung. Wealth and power are dung.
Kind of stinks doesn’t it?
Jason Newman • June 15, 2020
I have a friend who likes to study the history of the Biblical text. He talks (at length) about the Codex Alexandrinus and its differences from the Codex Sinatiticus. He knows about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and the Chester Beatty Papyri. And he would ask this question before we could even start to discuss Ecclesiastes. Did Solomon really write Ecclesiastes? And since that is where Ecclesiastes itself starts, that is where we will start as well.
I do not think that the authorship matters. The minority view is that the literal King Solomon, son of King David, wrote the book. The majority view is that the style and vocabulary strongly indicate another author. The majority view would suggest that the book was written during or after the Babylonian exile. (At this point my friend would object to the word “indicate.” Textual scholarship is not an exact science. Many of its adherent’s act as if is. However, like doctors and medicine, they are only best guessing.)
I think a clue through this is in the first few words of the book. The ancient Jews named a book by its first few words. So the title of this book is not “The Preacher.” It is “The Words of the Preacher.” This is not an autobiography. Nor is it a biography. It is a sermon! As such there is no intent to deceive. It is a literary device of the authors to remain anonymous. There was no need for pride and trying to be original. They were quite content to give credit to someone else even if what they had to say was quite innovative and of great value.
But we still must give the writer a name. The Preacher seems to impersonal. So we will go with the traditional Solomon.
And what a sermon it is. To make sure you do not miss the point, he states his premise in the second verse, talks about that main point for 12 chapters, and says it 3 times at the conclusion of the book (12:8). Vanity, all is vanity!
So what does Solomon mean when he writes this? I alluded to this a bit last week. The Hebrew word for vain is not about looking in the mirror and obsessing what you look like so others will notice you. It is a life lived with no purpose or chasing after the wind. Life has no purpose (no telos) only an end (a finis). And that finish is death. Life is meaningless. It is nothing.
Ernest Hemingway was seized by this idea that life is nothing. It pops up in his writing time and again. It is very explicit in the following passage:
…what did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee….
Nada. The Spanish word for nothing. John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic, used that word to describe God. John named God todo y nada. God is everything and nothing. For John (and the other great mystics) God is so full of being that he is No-Thing. For the modern man, the modern nihilist, God is so empty that he is Nothing. For modern man, God is simply another name for Nothingness.
Solomon’s overarching point is that without God – no that is not right because Solomon speaks frequently about God. Without faith in God – but that is still not quite right because Solomon has a faith in God. Maybe a rock-solid-no-doubt kind of faith. Best way to say what Solomon is pointing us to? Without a faith that develops into a passionate-no-holds-barred-damn-the-torpedoes-love-affair with God life is just vanities of vanities. A Dream of a Dream. A Shadow of a Shadow.
I want to close with a one last thought. This idea of life as vanity is not just in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, the New Testament dispenses with philosophical posturing. It does not examine the case leaving no stone unturned. The New Testament sums it all up in one word.
In Philippians Paul lists all his successes, education, wealth, power, privilege, and prestige. He was the man – “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” a Roman citizen.
“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8, KJV)
Some translations use the word garbage or rubbish where the KJV uses the word dung. But the Greek word is not so soft. The vulgarity of the Greek word is the same as our word “sh*t.”
We wonder why people feel so hopeless. We wonder why they rage. We wonder they chase drugs. Sex. Alcohol. Power. Education. Religion. Anything else people chase. And when they seem to catch it, why is so unfulfilling.
Crap. Its all crap.
Jason Newman • June 11, 2020
I was over at a friend’s house for the first time since the Covid-19 shutdown. We were playing a game of dominoes and were joking about a domino that fell on the floor. That one of the players was holding that domino until later in the game. To cheat and win. I made the comment that Dante needed to invent another circle of hell for people who cheat at dominoes! (If you do not know who Dante was, or the reference to the circles of hell, that is another post. You really should pick up a good modern translation!)
But as I lay in bed that night, a specific quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy came to mind, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That single line is written over the gates of Hell in Dante’s great poem. As I lay there in bed and tried to push that quotation out of my mind, another lingering question came to mind. What is the point? Pandemics. Protests. Injustice at every level of society. Rome burns and Nero plays his fiddle. But it seems everyone is Nero nowadays.
Netflix. Facebook. Twitter. CNN. Fox News. Will baseball start back up? Will taking down a statue fix injustice in the United States? Will a Supreme Court ruling change people? Does it really matter who is president?
I cannot escape this one thought -- life is meaningless. It is a short thing that ends in death. And since everyone dies, it is one cosmic joke.
I can hear you now, “But you are a Christian, it has meaning.” Perhaps. But I find myself still coming back to that single question, what is the point? Somewhere as I drifted off to sleep (in which I was tossing and turning all night) there came a thought – I am not the first one to say life is meaningless. I (we) need to investigate that.
As a pastor, I know that there are three books few Christians read – Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Song of Songs. The reasons are multiple – Christians as a rule only read the “good stories” in the Hebrew Scriptures. They may not read their Bibles at all. My personal opinion is that most Christians have bought into the idea that God wants them to feel good, so they just read the promises or the blessings.
And there is a more insidious reason. Most people do not want to confront the issues those three books deal with. Life is Vanity (Ecclesiastes). Life is Suffering (Job). Life is Love (Song of Songs).
I have reflected on that for a couple days now. Vanity. Suffering. Love. But at the outset, let us make sure that we are all on the same page. Definitions of the terms seems to be the place to start.
When the writer of Ecclesiastes uses the word “vanity” he is not writing about narcissism in the sense of looking at a mirror. He is writing about a life lived “in vain.” It is useless or profitless. The Hebrew word used for vain means chasing after the wind, a grasping at shadows, a wild goose chase. The thing about a wild goose chase is that it has no purpose – it only has an end.
We need to define suffering in the same way. We read Job in the context of him as an individual. But that is not the point of Job. At least not the major point. The major and bigger question is simply this. Why does evil even exist? Why does bad things happen to good people? That is what Job is all about. Not just for Job. But for all of us.
And finally love. Modern society has destroyed the idea of love. And most Christians have not thought about it very much either. The Song of Songs soars not because it is either literal (see the Fundamentalists) or symbolic (see the Mystics). Song of Songs soars because it is both literal and symbolic. A husband and wife give to each other as much as it is humanly possible to give: their whole selves, body and soul, life, time, friends, world, possessions, children—nothing is to be held back. God designed all three loves to be one: a unitive love, a procreative love, an erotic love, “two in one flesh” intimacy, third-party procreation, and first-party self-forgetful ecstasy. It is all here.
Some of the greatest minds of the Church – Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross – to name a few – have pointed to the idea Song of Songs is the key to understanding the whole of the Bible.
So -- I am proposing a journey. A safari if you will. And we will be hunting big game. We will be looking to answer the Big Question. What is the purpose of life?