Frances writes :- What a miserable and negative person the writer of Ecclesiastes seems to have been. (Eccles 1:2; 2:21-23). Why is it that the Catholic Church chooses him to be read at Mass, and on other occasions at the Office of Readings, part of the cycle of prayer in the Church? If taken at its face value Christians could be excused for taking this in a very world denying way which rubbishes the material creation. Indeed, I suspect it did contaminate certain approaches to theology in the 19th century.
Looked at in the light of Paul’s Letters, here focussing on Colossians, (3:1-5, 9-11), we can gain some insights which serve to inform but also modify Ecclesiastes in highly important ways. The Roman Province of Asia was part of what is now modern Turkey, and Colossae one of its cities. It was a prosperous town, inland from Ephesus and up the fertile Lycus valley, an area noted for its production of fine woollen garments. Clearly those who traded in these products could become wealthy. Although Colossae remains largely undug by archaeology, we know of similar cities in the area with their magnificent remains of Greek and Roman buildings and the impressive tombs of well- healed donors. Opramoas of Lycia built civic buildings; gave games; paid for the schooling of boys and girls; paid for the burials of the poor and paid for the dowries of poverty stricken girls. His benefactions, which are recorded on his tomb, were a by-word all over the Empire. Was Philemon, host and leader of the Church in Colossae, similarly situated? Is it possible that the church there was part of a rather self satisfied community of arriviste, content to see the money rolling in from their industry? We know of intense rivalry among these cities and of the smugness with which they spoke and thought about ‘others’, outsiders who did not belong or share in the ‘good-life’ – so much a part of their city mindset. Were these the Jew-Greek; circumcised-uncircumcised; barbarian-Scythian and slave-free of which our text speaks?
We know that Paul was not a political revolutionary and so his call to living the Christian life was not a call for equality in the sense that we should understand it. His letter to the Christians of Colossae is largely complimentary and warm, as they celebrate together the ‘creed’ hymn about the nature of Christ, and he expounds the meaning of their new found faith. What he does do however is to get them to rethink the implications of their faith in Jesus. Inevitably their daily life in industry and commerce brought them into contact with different races and groups of people whom it was easy to stigmatise and treat with contempt. Greeks had after all for centuries regarded barbarians, like their 5th century Persian invaders whose strange tongue they considered the braying donkeys…. Baa….Baa, as quite beyond the Pale; and everyone knew how the slave was mere property, to be ruthlessly exploited and sold on when nearing his best-by date. In the light of their conversion to Christianity: “Brought back to life in Christ”, this confident and comfortable group had to learn the lessons of their faith. This is what I think the requirement to “Kill everything in you that belongs only to earthly life”, is about. It is not in principle a stern admonition to moral rectitude, as though they were all great sinners, although that might be implied, but more about a recognition of the great sea-change involved in becoming a Christian. Ways of simply ‘being’ needed to be reconsidered in the light of the Gospel as one took on the persona of Christ Jesus. Anyone who has ever read the Letter to Philemon, experiencing Paul’s master class in the arm-bending of the rich businessman and church leader Philemon, in which this powerful leader of the civic community is reminded that he now has Christ as his eternal overlord and patron, will appreciate the subtleties of this shift in thinking.
Perhaps this is also the implication of our Gospel, (Luke 12:13-21). There is nothing intrinsically flawed about careful business planning, and even business expansion, but if it threatens to become the entire focus of our lives and the centre of our thinking, then surely it is wrong. Many of us will be familiar with the failed marriages of the person so obsessed with their academic work, or computer involvement, or business, that they lose sight of the real meaning of life and family. Life, as Jesus knew and appreciated, in all its fullness was for living to the full; and just as the rich man in the gospel failed to appreciate it, it is possible that that earnest little community in Colossae, secure in their own prosperity, needed to be reawakened to the truth, just like you and me. Those of us given the hope of eternal life in and with Christ have a different agenda and need continually to be reminded of it.