Recently, a “Peanuts” cartoon grabbed my attention. In the cartoon, Charlie and Snoopy are sitting at the edge of a dock overlooking the water and surrounding landscape. Charlie says, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy!” Pondering this statement for a moment, Snoopy replies, “True, but all the other days, we will not.” This clever conversation between the two characters is an appropriate entry into the mind of Qoheleth, the self-identified author of Ecclesiastes. This Sunday’s first reading is a brief selection from the musings of Qoheleth (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23). Like Charlie and Snoopy, the ancient author, Qoheleth, is pondering the meaning of life.
Qoheleth is calling into question one of the main components of conventional wisdom of ancient Israelite belief and practice; namely, the doctrine of divine retribution. According to this doctrine, following the commands of the Lord will result in blessings in this life whereas disobedience will result in curses (Dt 11:26-28). Put more simply, good things (prosperity, long life, freedom from illness, etc.) will happen to good people (the wise and the righteous), and bad things will happen to bad people. Qoheleth sets out to test the validity of this tenant of conventional wisdom and thus to discover the meaning of life.
Through his investigation of whether right living and/or the acquisition of wisdom leads to greater prosperity and/or longer life, Qoheleth recognizes that death comes indiscriminately for all — the wise, the foolish, the wicked and the righteous. Thus, right living and wisdom do not guarantee long life and prosperity. Therefore, Qoheleth opines throughout Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity” (2:2:11, 17; 4:16; 6:2) and again, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2; 12:8)! In the original Hebrew, this expression means that all of life’s moments are fleeting, as fleeting as the breath of air that we see in front of us on a cold winter day.
So does this lead Qoheleth to surrender to despair and to conclude that life is meaningless? It does not, rather this ancient author encourages all of us: “Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works … Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun” (Eccl 9:7b-9). Qoheleth’s central message to “enjoy life” repeats throughout the text (2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7, 9); thus, it can be concluded reasonably that his message is not one of despair. Rather, Qoheleth exhorts us to “enjoy life” as a gift from God. Our Gospel reading completes this message, exhorting us not only to “rest, eat, drink, be merry,” in this life, but to live in such a way that we “store up treasures … in what matters to God” (Luke 12:19, 21).
Fr. Brennan, vocation director at St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere, earned Master of Divinity and Theology degrees from Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.