Text: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20
Sunday October 17, 2021 (Pentecost 21)
Trinity – Creston/Mount Ayr
Grace, mercy, and peace is yours from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our text for this 21st Sunday after Pentecost is the OT lesson from Ecclesiastes 5 that was just proclaimed.
Let Us Pray: Dearest Jesus, send your Holy Spirit reminding us that true and eternal prosperity comes in being redeemed and covered in your saving work. Amen.
Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ:
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the Star Trek franchise is well versed in the Vulcan greeting. (Bonus points if you can actually perform the hand gesture!) As far as a greeting goes, you can’t find one more universally acceptable than that.
Who wouldn’t want to live long and prosper—to live a long time and succeed in life? Sounds pretty good! Of course, as is often the case, the trick is defining terms. We can debate what constitutes a long life.
But today, God’s Word invites us to consider the last word in that famous greeting. How would we begin to define prosperity? What does the good life look like?
This is the question that consumes King Solomon’s attention in Ecclesiastes. In this book, we have the observations of a man who was given access to almost unlimited wisdom, wealth, pleasure, and power. And he seems to have employed every last bit of it in search of the good life.
He took for himself seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. He built houses and cities. He bought horses and chariots. He amassed staggering amounts of money. He imported exotic animals and goods from far-off countries. Solomon was definitely an interesting man.
And yet, when we come to the end of his life, the likely time when he wrote Ecclesiastes, we find a man who seems to write with sadness and resignation. “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). A chasing after the wind.
In today’s reading from Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon takes up the vanity of a way of life practiced by so many that you might think it’s required by law: to pursue prosperity by piling up wealth and possessions. We see this tendency show up in our lives in a variety of ways:
Every year, Americans spend several billions of dollars playing the lottery, hoping to “hit it big.” And the results are doubly tragic. Millions of people waste resources that God has given them to manage, and the tiny percentage of those who do win the lottery often find that their lives become less happy than they were before.
Countless individuals and families struggle under crushing debt because they’ve lived far beyond their means, trying to buy their way to happiness.
Even those of us who enjoy financial stability often know the frustration of having homes filled to the brim with stuff, so much so that we must rent additional space simply to store what we aren’t using.
In the corporate world, stakeholders are tempted to prioritize profit over all other outcomes as the greatest good, and workers often are seen as expendable if layoffs will balance the books.
In ways big and small, we discover by our own experience what Solomon experienced and observed almost three thousand years ago:
Those who love money will never be satisfied with money. Solomon writes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (v 10).
For a person whose goal in life is simply to become rich, when is enough truly enough? And how much satisfaction can a number on a bank account statement really bring, if my life isn’t tied to any higher purpose than making money?
With an increase of wealth also comes an increase of those who want a share. Verse 11: “When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?”
At first, I might experience some pleasure that people are attracted to me. But I quickly begin to question motives. Are they here for me, or for what I can give them?
Even children know this feeling when a friend comes to their house, not so much excited to play with them, but excited to play with their toys. We see this same dynamic in the halls of power, with lobbyists and special interests passing favors back and forth with politicians charged with stewarding trillions of American tax dollars.
Even leaders in the church face the regular temptation to treat wealthier members of the Body of Christ differently than those with fewer financial resources.
What’s more, riches can be held to one’s own harm. “There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt” (v 13). On one hand, that harm can come from the outside, from those who desire to steal and defraud.
With greater possessions comes the need to expend time, energy, and money protecting them. But even greater harm can arise from within, from our twisted human hearts, which are constantly looking for something—anything—to provide us good apart from God.
Today’s Gospel from Mark 10 flows out of the account of Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man, a man who was given the opportunity to follow the Savior and King of the world but who walked away sad, unwilling in that moment to part with his wealth. What a tragedy!
Unfortunately, it’s a tragedy that many of us have seen in ways big and small, as the love of money turns people not only from trusting in God but also from loving others well.
We can read Eccl 5:17 about the lover of money eating in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger and immediately conjure up images of the Scrooges we’ve interacted with (and the Scrooge we’ve become) at certain moments in our lives.
How many families have seen siblings turn against one another when parents pass away and inheritance comes into view?
And let’s not forget that riches in which we trust can flee from us at any moment. Solomon recounts the sad story of seeing a man lose his wealth through a bad business venture and have nothing with which to care for his son (v 14).
Maybe you’ve felt that same sinking feeling in your own stomach. You lost a job or your business failed, and you can barely stand the thought of coming home and looking your spouse or child in the face, because you feel so powerless to provide for them.
And there are countless examples of people whose wealth has been wiped out due to a medical catastrophe. These stories foreshadow the reality that every single one of us will face one day: that at the moment of our death or the return of Christ (whichever comes first), our earthly possessions will become worthless to us.
“As he came from his mother’s womb,” Solomon says for all of us, “he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (v 15).
With a sad winsomeness, Solomon speaks to us with the heart of a grandfather and makes a convincing case against chasing after wealth as the path to true prosperity. And his wisdom spoken in these verses rings out in concert with the rest of Ecclesiastes in exposing a deceptive lie: that prosperity and the good life are found in self-sufficiency, in independence.
At some level, we all are tempted to believe that if we just gathered more or worked harder or gained more knowledge or partied with the right people, we could make our lives better. And then, in ways subtle or magnificent, God crushes our illusions of independence and reminds us of our smallness.
He nudges us back into the groove of our vocations—our callings in the home, at work or school, in our communities, all the things Solomon calls the “lot” that God gives—and often forces us to see how small that groove is in the grand scheme of things.
We’d like to think that we have lots of control and that we can change the world, or at least shape our own little world as we like. Then the world’s maker comes along and says, “Not so fast.”
But for the child of God, this need not be bad news! For God is not only calling us through these words to acknowledge our smallness but also to know his greatness. He calls us to stop pursuing prosperity by paths of our own design, and instead to trust that he has done everything to guarantee our prosperity today, tomorrow, and forever in giving us Jesus.
That news has the power to give us joy in a way that a pile of dollar bills never could. Consider the account of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Here’s a man who knew the emptiness of chasing prosperity through accumulating wealth, the ways that pursuit impoverished his relationship with God and with his community.
His pockets are overflowing, but his heart is desperate—until Jesus finds him. What amazing grace, that the God of Israel, the God of heaven, would journey to Jericho to find this one man. In an act of undeserved love, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name, like a shepherd calling his sheep.
And that interaction with love incarnate changed Zacchaeus forever. His slavery to wealth was shattered by the liberating work of the Gospel, and suddenly Zacchaeus found new joy in being an instrument of God’s grace, using his money to bless the poor and to help reconcile relationships that he had damaged.
That same Gospel rings forth today for you and for me. Jesus calls you by name, as surely as you were washed in the water, to find prosperity sola gratia—in his grace alone.
As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Look to Jesus, and see the richest expression of love demonstrated in the extreme poverty of death on a cross, so that we sinners, rich in things and poor in soul, might know true prosperity in belonging to him.
Taste the richness of that love every time you partake of his true body and blood. And rejoice! Rejoice in the treasure of forgiveness and eternal life in him. Rejoice in the daily blessings of food and drink and work. And rejoice in the opportunities God gives you to bless others with the wealth he has entrusted to your management.
In Jesus, we discover what it really looks like to prosper. Even better, in Christ, we discover a God who is committed to giving us true prosperity for his glory, and for our great joy! Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.