Sunday Devotions: The Two Teachers
Ecclesiastes 1-2, Luke 12
“Teacher,” someone shouted at Jesus, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Speaking to a crowd big enough to trample each other isn’t an ideal educational setting, and this student isn’t really asking a question. Still, Rabbi Jesus manages to turn that selfish demand into a teachable moment in this week’s Gospel lesson.
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns the man, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” To illustrate, he tells the story of a rich landowner who builds still more and bigger barns, hoping to lay in enough inventory that he can tell his soul, “relax, eat, drink, be merry”… only for God to rebuke him: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God,” Jesus concludes.
Among my other sins, I can’t confess greed as one of my abiding temptations. I worry about having enough money to pay our bills, but I’ve never been driven by a desire to accumulate more and more and more material possessions. Instead, I’m blessed to have a job that’s all about accumulating a different kind of treasure: knowledge and understanding, wisdom and empathy.
But in our Old Testament reading, a second educator warns that my kind of wealth carries its own temptations. As an inheritance, it inspires its own foolishness.
“Vanity of vanities!” says the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. “All is vanity” (1:2).
All is in vain; all will vanish.
All, that is, but wisdom… right? Surely a work of wisdom literature doesn’t lump teaching and learning with the rest of humanity’s wasted toil.
But there’s our Teacher calling his own life’s work “an unhappy business that God has given humans to be busy with” (1:13). For “what happens to the fool will happen to me also,” since there’s no more “enduring remembrance” of the wise than the fool (2:15-16). Worse yet, whatever is left of the Teacher’s efforts will be left to an unworthy successor, “because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (2:21).
Maybe it’s just that I’ve reached the halfway point in my academic career in the middle of a deeply challenging period for higher ed, but… does a similar anxiety lies behind my concerns about the future of my profession and my university? Perhaps I preach sermons about the liberal arts because I’ve “toiled with wisdom and knowledge” only to worry that it will be squandered by people whose motives I distrust — people who, like the rich fool of Jesus’ parable, chiefly value the accumulation of material wealth.
In the process, I fall into a different version of the same foolishness: the assumption that any human can control what is and what will be… while forgetting the One who truly is in control.
“Consider the lilies,” Jesus would teach me, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory1 was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you of little faith!” (Luke 12:27-28)
Heading into a difficult year, one that risks amplifying all my worries about my work, I pray that I will instead “find enjoyment in [my] toil.” For this is “from the hand of God,” who “gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” to those who please him (Eccl 2:24, 26).
Next week’s lectionary readings: Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Luke 12:32-40, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
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Traditionally, Solomon was assumed to be the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, who is introduced as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1).