In my previous parish, a group of senior citizens gathered each Wednesday night for bible study. We selected the entire book of Ecclesiastes to work our way through. You might find it a bit morose, this book of Ecclesiastes. The narrator, called “the Preacher” or “Teacher”, wanders through the world, decrying that all is vanity. No matter the achievements, no matter the fortunes, no matter the fame, all things are found lacking. The narrator says, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…the narrator of Ecclesiastes must be fun at parties!)
Reading Ecclesiastes with the senior citizen group, however, was a deep experience. Together with a group of folks who have lived long years and seen much along the way, I discovered Ecclesiastes as that sort of deep wisdom that only becomes clear after you have lived a bit. Life can seem a series of disasters tinged with occasional success, or closed doors suddenly open, then shut, and then open again, and Ecclesiastes moves in the midst of such realization about life. There is nothing new, no use trying to be more than human. You will fail; you will triumph. Do not get failure or success confused with divine favor or disproval. Life will be life.
In the 2005 film Little Miss Sunshine, the story of a deeply dysfunctional family unfolds as they undertake a road trip across the country. The young daughter has an opportunity to achieve something: participating in a pageant for little girls. The family struggles to get there, as much with the van (that they wind up having to push to start up each time the engine is turned off) as they do with dealing with being in close quarters with one another. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the film’s title with its characters cannot be more apt, reinforced by one of the opening shots: a close-up of the character portrayed by comedian Steve Carrell, a man who is quite miserable, suicidal, and feels as if life has lost its meaning, staring into the nothingness in the midst of a mental ward. As he stares, the title appears: Little Miss Sunshine. The man is a leading literary scholar, yet his career, love life, and will to live have been eclipsed by a run of misfortune and his own increasing gloom and bitterness.
The narrator of Ecclesiastes seems to join in: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” If you read Ecclesiastes 2, you encounter the long experiment with excess that the narrator of Ecclesiastes tries out: power, wealth, possessions. All of these things are in his grasp, yet he feels like he is empty. “All is vanity and chasing after the wind.”
At the same time, in all of its wanderings through the gloom of life, the writer of Ecclesiastes points toward something greater than this unending folly of human life. For every reference to the futility of human life, there is an affirmation of life with God. The folly is seen as seductive, and the wise path is found for those who eschew the excessiveness.
The 1999 Oscar winner for Best Picture is the film American Beauty, the story of a suburban family that is deeply dysfunctional. While having the perks of life (the picket fence, SUV-driving ideal life of white, middle-class America), the family lives out Thoreau’s observation that most of us “live lives of quiet desperation”. The family finds little consolation in all of their stuff, indeed, not even in their relationships with one another. The storylines of each family member takes him or her on a journey seeking something more fulfilling, but instead, they find themselves even further away from happiness. Thoreau notes, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
In the midst of this abysmal story comes a beautiful yet near elusive moment of grace. A neighbor boy takes the young daughter to see his collection of home videos, including this seemingly inane footage of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. While caught up in selling and abusing drugs, the neighbor boy finds something stirring and different in the experience of filming life with his video camera. This plastic bag floating down an alley makes him see something through his camera lens. He explains as he filmed this scene,
This bag was just...dancing with me...like a kid begging me to play with it…That’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid ever…. Video is a poor excuse..but it helps me remember. I need to remember…Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it…and my heart, she’s going to cave in.” (Excerpt from script, quoted from Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty, p. 62-63).
This is where the parable from Luke also joins in. Jesus tells a story that I imagine will never lose its relevance. It is not a criticism of wealth. Rather, it is a criticism of the rich who are not content to be the “haves”, rather, they seek to be the “have more” type. The farmer is not content with good crops and barns to store them. Instead, he launches into building bigger barns and storing away even more. To Jesus’ audience, living in first century Palestine, where nearly everyone did not own property, any story about a wealthy landowner presumed that those who were got this way by being exploitative. Like the Grinch from Dr. Seuss, this man’s heart has grown several sizes too small.
The parable resounds in a recent film (indeed, the #1 film in America this past week!). In The Simpsons Movie, the entire town is experiencing a devastating power loss. As the townspeople go to Mr. Burns, the owner of the town’s nuclear power plant, for help, you cannot help but notice the irony. As most of Springfield flickers in and out of power, high up on the hill above, the Burns mansion is lit brightly, with huge neon signs blazing “Happy Holidays from Monty Burns”. The townspeople ask Mr. Burns for help, and he shows them two buttons on his desk. One button will give the town below all the power it needs. The other button, if pushed, will release the guard dogs to chase the townsmen away if he is unconvinced by their requests for help. Mr. Burns can provide for others, yet as the scene cuts away from the pleas of the townspeople, Burns is heard telling the men which way to run out of the mansion as the dogs start baying.
The parable mirrors Ecclesiasates and the more dodgy side of human nature as the story involves the farmer-turned-hoarder being told that his life was to end that very night. The beauty of life is not found in possessions or any other insular hedonisms of your choosing. As Thoreau writes, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Or as Jesus warns, do not store up for yourself and be not rich toward God.
The pragmatic critique of Ecclesiastes and the social criticism embedded within the world of Jesus’ parables resound in the midst of our own day. Whether we find ourselves sitting in a darkened movie theatre or lounging around the TV with the latest film from Netflix.com on screen, we find ourselves seeing a bit of our own story in popular culture. It causes us to weep, laugh, and even yearn from a place deep down inside ourselves.
And sacred text finds us as well, in wisdom sayings and parable form. The narrator of Ecclesiastes and the parable-spinner Christ beckon to us where we sit in the pews. We hear these words, and perhaps they wound or they liberate, who knows but yourself where these words count the most in your heart.
But, whether through film or scripture, we see yet again that there is a luminous grace that surrounds us, something that makes the heart feel close to bursting. The burdens of the day or along life’s long journey, the need for control fueled by our quiet desperation, it is unmasked as vanity upon vanity. And for those willing to look closely, even beyond themselves, there is wisdom that points to a life that is indeed good, and a faith that is far richer than any possession.
And the old gospel hymn comes to mind, “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of God’s glory and grace.”