Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 90:3-6, 12-14, 17
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Gospel: According to St. Luke 12:13-21
The dictionary gives two definitions of vanity, each unique, yet also inextricably intertwined. The first is the more common: “excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.” But when seen in light of the second, the meaning of this weekend’s first reading shines through: “the quality of being worthless or futile.”
“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”
In a world that has forgotten the second definition of vanity, the above phrase is more easily seen as a battle cry rather than a warning. In a world obsessed with social media postings where everything except the actual command “Look at ME!!!” is included there is not a lot of room for quiet reflection on what it all means.
At his first pep rally as Notre Dame football coach in the fall of 1964 Ara Parseghian stood before a student body who looked to him for salvation, having endured a 2-7 season in 1963 and a 19-30 record over the past five years. When he approached the microphone the 6,800 students rose as one and cheered for fifteen minutes before they allowed Parseghian to speak. Afterwards the soft-spoken and thoughtful coach was quoted as saying, “Now I can understand how Hitler got started.”
For his part, Qoheleth, the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, ponders the other side of the vanity coin – the side focused on something akin to futility or pointlessness, a pessimism that asks, “Does anything really matter?” This is a book that Winnie the Pooh’s friend Eeyore would have enjoyed (if ‘enjoyed’ can be used in reference to Eeyore).
Despite its less-than-sunny outlook this text holds great wisdom, especially for those who follow Christ. Jesus warns us in this week’s Gospel story that our lives might be taken away tonight and all that we have worked and planned for will be left behind. The warning holds true even if we live another fifty, sixty or seventy-plus years. One day we all come to our final reckoning and the only wealth that accompanies any of us is the good that we have done for others.
And thus we can clearly see the intimate relationship between the two definitions of vanity. We can be filled with vanity when we listen to the adulation of this world and when we neglect the warning of both Qoheleth and Jesus that what we amass in this world is worthless and vain unless it has the ability to endure beyond the here and now. Certainly, one of the great dangers of vanity is the loss of any sense of the necessity of using social or material currency to help those who are in need.
Yet there is another grave temptation – one that was not a part of the lives of anyone pre-social media – and that is to accompany any virtuous acts with the faux humility of on-line grandstanding, more commonly known as “virtue signaling.” For those who aren’t sure what “virtue signaling” is, just substitute the word “vanity” and think of the first definition.
Jesus tells the crowd that their only hope is in amassing riches that matter to God. Vanity, whether brought upon by ego-boosting adulation or by the amassing of personal wealth at the expense of others, can never be our companion if we expect to take our place in the Kingdom. All we can take with us is our humble attempts to love God and neighbor – no matter how many followers we have.