Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

This week’s lectionary reading includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I am afraid is so overly familiar that it has lost much of its original impact. As is usual in Jesus’s storytelling, he takes an ordinary tale and adds a startling twist.

The ordinary tale was that of a man who was the victim of a vicious mugging. Then, as now, was distressingly common enough to perhaps not even make the evening news. The character of the injured man is, I think deliberately, not fleshed out. Was he a citizen or an immigrant? Did he take unnecessary risks in traveling alone down a road known to have been frequented by robbers? Was he unarmed, or armed yet overwhelmed by his assailants? Could he have been drinking and thus wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings? We don’t know his ethnicity or religion, or whether he was rich or poor. None of these things is important to the story. What is important is that he is a person who needed help.

The injured man was ignored by a priest and a Levite, who like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that occasioned this story, would have been among the educated, religious elite of the day. (Lawyer in this context is an expert in the Torah, a religious academic) The two men who crossed the road to avoid the victim should have known the Torah well enough to be aware that it was their moral responsibility to help the injured man. Why didn’t they? What excuse did they come up with to convince themselves to cross the road and leave the man to die? Like the priest and the Levite, the Bible scholar who questioned Jesus would have known the scriptures well enough to know there was no good justification for their actions. Again, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what might be going on in their heads, and I think that was also deliberate. Jesus wanted those listening to the story, including us, to fill in the blanks with our own possible excuses for failing to help when it is within our power to do so.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a Samaritan, a despised outsider, stops to help the man and becomes the hero of Jesus’s story. Since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans had been spurned by the stringent religiously observant because their bloodlines were thought to be impure. Not all the people of Israel were deported to Assyria or Babylon at the time of the exile; some of “the poorer people of the land” were allowed to remain. When the exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they refused help from the locals because it was suspected that they might have intermarried with people who could not trace their ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Bad feelings between the two groups of God-worshipers intensified in the centuries between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus. Talk about polarization! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun“.

When the story ends, Jesus delivers a zinger. The lawyer had begun by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus changes the focus of the question by asking, “Who acted like a neighbor?” I don’t know if Jesus had ever studied the Socratic method of teaching, but he had it down pat. There was only one answer the lawyer could give: the Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us how this very serious student of the Bible reacted, but the inevitable answer must have felt like a punch to the gut. The Samaritans were despised by the lawyer and other “purebloods” for not obeying what they understood to be God’s clear command forbidding intermarriage with non-Israelites lest they fall into idolatry. Yet in this story it is not the priest, not the Levite, not the Torah scholar, but the Samaritan who understands the heart of the Torah best.

Who is my neighbor” is the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” seeks to limit neighborly behavior to those who somehow deserve it. The question we should be asking ourselves instead is “am I being a neighbor?” If I am being a neighbor, I am not limiting my compassion to those who I think deserve it. If I am being a neighbor, I will try to help whoever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My actions should not be dependent on what is in the heart of the other, but what is in my own heart.

God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God pours out his blessings on all of us freely, without regard for whether we deserve them our not. God showed his great love for us when Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God is continually asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” even when we run away from God and behave in very un-neighborly ways to each other. God invites us to “go and do likewise“and be a neighbor to everyone we meet on this road of life.

And that’s good news to me.

One Wedding, Six Water Jars, and an Epiphany

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”  “Woman,why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so,  and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:1-11

John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s telling of the Jesus story in a number of ways, and is the only one who includes the water-into-wine miracle. In fact, John doesn’t use the word “miracle” to describe supernatural acts by Jesus. Rather, he uses the word “sign”. This leads me to believe that John chose to include specific acts in his gospel for metaphorical reasons. That is, John selected miracles not just because they displayed Jesus’s abilities to do things ordinary humans could not, but because they demonstrated something about Jesus that John wanted the reader to understand. John is the most metaphysical and mystical of the gospels, and there is always something else beyond the plain meaning of his stories about Jesus.

What could possibly be the meaning of this story, especially as John notes it is the first sign Jesus performs? I don’t think it’s that Jesus wanted to get everybody drunker than they already were. I can see how someone looking only at the plain meaning of the story might come to that conclusion, though. I can remember certain Baptist Sunday school teachers of my youth insisting that Jesus changed the water into grape juice, not wine. I can’t remember whether I had the nerve to ask or was only thinking, “Then why did the banquet master make that remark about the practice of serving inferior wine after the guest’s taste buds had been sufficiently dulled so as not to notice or care?”  No, I think we have to go beyond the plain meaning of this event to understand its significance.

In ancient times, wine was a symbol of joy. The book of Judges makes a reference to wine cheering both gods and men. Psalms speaks of wine making glad the hearts of men. The writer of Ecclesiastes notes that wine makes life joyful. Micah envisioned a time in the age to come when everyone would sit under his own vine and fig tree. Jesus himself used many metaphors of the kingdom of God as a banquet, a party. Many people have the mistaken impression that if they give their hearts and lives over to God, God is going to demand that that they give up everything they enjoy doing and start doing everything they don’t want to do. There are a lot of jokes, which really aren’t jokes, about people who want to wait until they are on death’s doorstep to “get religion” lest they miss out on the fun of life. Changing the water into wine is a sign to me that God is not a celestial party pooper out to make our lives miserable. As Jesus later will tell his disciples, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” God doesn’t want to ruin our lives, but improve them. Those who “taste and see that the Lord is good” will not want to go back to drinking the inferior wine of a life without God.

John notes that the six water jars were the kind used by religious people for ceremonial washing. I think he included that little detail to make a point. Just as tasteless water was changed into the choicest wine, Jesus was about to change the way people thought about God. Faith should not be thought of as a chore, but a delight. God is not so much concerned about whether we jump through all the right ceremonial hoops, but in how well we love. Jesus would condense all 613 commandments in the Torah into two: love of God and love of others. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Some religious teachers emphasize rules, the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”, some of which may have served a useful purpose at some point in time, but are no longer applicable. Jesus taught principles rather than rules. When he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, I think that’s what he meant. Rules may change in adaptation to changing times, but the principles upon which the rules were based are unchanging. And according to Jesus, the primary principle is love: love that is not an emotion, but an action. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The epiphany of the miracle at Cana is that Jesus came not to make life boring or dull, but full and meaningful. God is less concerned with how well we dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s  that with how we treat others.  And that’s good news to me!

 

Good News, Bad News

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.  The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.  Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.  Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.  That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.  Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs.  Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.  This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.  The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

Today as Hurricane Irma lumbers toward the Florida coast, I’ve been anxiously (obsessively?) checking for the latest news on its projected trajectory. My mother lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and as the predicted landfall inches northwestward, my concerns intensify.  A few years ago, another “I” hurricane, Isaac, battered down her windows and the storm surge extensively flooded her house. I don’t want her to have to go through that again. I want the hurricane to pass over her, and go somewhere else. But I know that wherever it goes, it will cause extensive damage to somebody’s home. So how then should I pray? If my prayers are answered in the way I want them to be answered, somebody else’s prayers won’t be.

Let me make this clear: I don’t think that God is in the business of micromanaging the paths of hurricanes. I don’t even like the term “acts of God”, which I think was invented by insurance companies in order to mitigate their financial losses.  I am embarrassed and angered by the shoddy and shallow theologies postulated by those who say God sent Katrina to punish New Orleans for its licentiousness, or Sandy to punish New York for its secularism. Not only do I not think God works that way, I think these people make themselves look foolish, because hurricanes also strike morally rigid, religiously observant communities. Job was a pretty good guy, yet underwent terrible undeserved suffering;  the writer of Ecclesiastes observed that sometimes the wicked prosper and the good die young; and I think Jesus was pretty clear that bad things sometimes happen, and they aren’t always the result of bad behavior.  Instead of assigning blame, Jesus taught, we should try to help. But an uncomfortable  truth remains: what is good news for some is often bad news for others.

Today’s Old Testament reading commemorates the origins of Passover, an event which was good news for some and bad news for others. The background story is familiar, but here’s my brief synopsis: During an extended time of famine, the patriarch Jacob, aka Israel, and his entire extended family emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. The immigrants were initially treated well, but over the years the relationship between native-born Egyptians and alien proto-Israelites deteriorated. The Egyptians became increasingly concerned about the Hebrew fertility rate, which they tried to manage in horrifying ways.  Perhaps they felt Egypt should be for Egyptians, not Semitic sheepherders. Perhaps they were concerned that their culture and way of life would be lost to these monotheistic interlopers. At any rate, the Hebrews found themselves mistreated, used, and abused for several centuries. By the time Moses came along, Rameses was in full make-Egypt-great-again mode, mainly by the use of Hebrew slave labor. But, the story tells us, God was not happy with the way Egyptian exceptionality was being advanced. He heard the cries of his enslaved people, and entrusted Moses with the task of doing something about it. Through his messenger Moses, God sent sign after sign to Pharaoh that he ought to “let my people go”. But no matter what Moses said or did, Pharaoh managed to explain away, often with the assistance of advisors currying his favor. He blamed his victims, accusing them of not working hard enough, and made life even more difficult for them than it already was. Finally, God had had enough. He would send one final plague, the death of the first-born, which the Hebrews could escape by marking their doorposts with blood. The angel of death “passed over” those homes, and Passover was commissioned as a permanent reminder of God’s intervention on their behalf.

That first Passover was good news for the enslaved Hebrew people, and bad news for the Egyptians. What is understood as deliverance by the Hebrew slaves comes across as a cruel and devastating loss to their Egyptian masters. What’s especially sad to me is to think of the collateral damage. I imagine the average working-class Egyptian was unaware of the escalating Moses vs. Pharaoh drama, much less of the dangers posed by the concern of an unknown god for his chosen people. Some of them may have even been friendly with their Hebrew neighbors, as they asked for and were given valuable parting gifts. But, according to the story, they still suffered tremendously from the plagues. Their tragedy is often commemorated symbolically in many Passover seders, as drops of wine are spilled as each plague is mentioned. The joy of the freed Hebrew slaves is tempered by the sadness of the bereaved Egyptian families, for God cares about both. There’s also a Talmudic teaching about God’s reaction when the Hebrews began to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army; “How can you sing as the works of my hands are drowning in the sea?”

This story says several things to me about God. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that God takes the side of those who are oppressed over the ones who are doing the oppressing. The love of God and the wrath of God seem to be two sides of the same coin, and your perspective determines which side you see. If you’re the one being rescued, you see God’s love. If you’re the cause of the need for rescue, it’s likely that you see God’s wrath. I don’t know that the Hebrews were morally superior to the Egyptians, as their various bad behaviors in the wilderness later proved. Their deliverance wasn’t based on their merits, but on God’s empathy for their suffering. God seems to care more about how people treat each other than some of the things some people think he is concerned about.

Second, God uses human beings to bring about positive change, as he did through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The usual way God seems to work is to change human hearts so that their thoughts and desires are more in line with God’s thoughts and desires. I’m not discounting the possibility of direct divine intervention, but most of the time I think God chooses to work through people. Why did God wait so long to rescue his people? Maybe God wanted to intervene much earlier, but Moses was the first person to pay attention, hear God’s voice, and respond to it. Imagine what the world might be like if more people were willing to pay attention enough to see, and the desire to do something about, human need.

Finally, we must acknowledge the reality of collateral damage, not as a result of God’s actions, but of ours. All of us, if we are honest, know that we make many mistakes, some intentionally and some unintentionally. We all fall far short of God’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, “we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Awareness of that reality ought to cause us to be more compassionate toward others, but unfortunately instead we often want to blame others for their own misfortunes. We attempt to cover our own nakedness, not with fig leaves, but with pointing fingers. If we don’t get away from that kind of thinking, we may find ourselves looking at the wrong side of God’s coin of love and wrath.

No, God doesn’t steer hurricanes toward particular communities as punishment, but it does seem highly likely to me that human actions may have been a contributory factor in the ferocity of this year’s hurricane season. As ocean temperatures inch upward, they provide a fertile breeding ground for hurricanes. As sea levels rise, more and more coastline is vulnerable to inundation. As we destroy more and more wetlands in our quest to build bigger and bigger barns, we remove the layers of protection they might have provided. If we are willing to pay acknowledge that there might be a problem with the way we have cared for God’s creation, we can work together to find a solution. If we don’t, we may find ourselves in a position eerily similar to that of Pharaoh”s pursuing army, overwhelmed by forces of nature we cannot control.

Good news or bad news? God’s deliverance or God’s wrath? God’s love or God’s justice? It’s more complicated than some make it out to be. But I’m pretty sure on which side I want to be.

 

 

 

 

Ashes, Ashes; We All Fall Down

There’s an apocryphal origin story about the children’s game “Ring Around the Rosie”. The story goes that the rhyme accompanying the game originated in the time of the great black plague epidemics which more than decimated Europe during the Middle Ages.  There are several variations of the game and the story, but one version of the last line is “Ashes, ashes; we all fall down”, which supposedly signifies death due to plague.

According to the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time dedicated to introspection and repentance and remembrance of one’s mortality. “Dust you were, and to dust you will return”. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.  I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so the Ash Wednesday tradition of going to church in order to be reminded of the certainty of death and the need for repentance was quite alien to me when I first experienced it at fifty-something. In the Southern Baptist church, the realities of sin and death were a requisite part of every worship service. We were  frequently reminded of the vileness of our sinful natures, often warned that we could drop dead between one heartbeat and the next, and always offered an altar call whereby we could demonstrate our repentance publicly.  In fact, as I remember it, many Baptists looked down their noses a bit at Catholics, Episcopalians, and other churches which observed Lent for limiting the practice of repentance to once a year. We didn’t “give something up for Lent”, either. If you shouldn’t be doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it all year long, and in high school I noticed that the kind of things my friends tended to abstain from during Lent tended to be high calorie foods like bread and sweets, thus doing double duty as diet aids.

Probably partially due to my particular religious background, I never have been able to meaningfully engage in the Ash Wednesday ritual, nor in popular Lenten fasting practices. I tried the ashes-on-the-forehead thing once, and it felt artificial and odd. I gave up chocolate once for Lent; not only did I feel rather duplicitous; I didn’t even lose any weight. But also partially because of my Baptist upbringing, and likely because of my own personality, and certainly because of my age, I am no stranger to introspection and awareness of my both own mortality and moral failings. I don’t need a priest to remind me that “dust I was, dust I am, and to dust I will return”. Nor do I need to be reminded of the many ways I fall short; of the things I do that I shouldn’t do, the things I don’t do that I should do; and the mistakes I am constantly making even when I try to do the right thing. I think about that kind of stuff all the time. Add spiritual angst to all the “stuff’ that is going on in the world and in my personal life, and I can become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Then I feel guilty for that, too.

I have found it to be more spiritually rewarding, as well as psychologically healthy, when I stop ruminating and start doing. Sometimes this means attempting  a new spiritual practice; the two I have found most helpful in the past few years are meditation and writing. Sometimes this means attempting to let mindfulness of the needs of others lead me to new kinds of service projects.  There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah which seems to indicate that God may think along the same lines.   “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed  and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?… 

I think there’s a profound theological truth in the nursery rhyme. However you choose to look at it, we are mortal, made of ashes or dust or star-stuff, and someday we will die. “We all fall down”- we all make mistakes; no one is perfect and despite our best efforts, we err in ways that hurt ourselves and other people and the world in which we live. These are observations of reality that are true for theists and nontheists alike. The difference is for the Christian is that we understand death and failure differently. I understand death to be not an entropic dissolution into nothingness, but a transition much like birth. I understand that “missing the mark” is inevitable, but failure is not triumphant. God continues to work in us and through us error-prone human beings to effect positive change.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down. But God is always there to pick us up.

 

Song of Solomon: The Joy of…Sex?

 

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.

Like Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon elicits questions along the lines of “What’s this doing in the Bible?” With all its talk of climbing palm trees and milk and honey under the tongue, it presents a problem to those who equate the enjoyment of sex with sin. Often attempts are made to explain away its subject matter as allegory: it’s not really about sexual love but the love of God for his people Israel. That approach would seem to make God extremely kinky, to say the least, and I don’t agree with it. I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a celebration of sexual love which utilizes rather graphic imagery. Perhaps the Song of Songs was used as a part of a wedding-night ritual similar to the more recent tradition of Shivaree.

So why is Song of Solomon in our Bible, and what can we learn from it?   According to Genesis, after creating the world with all its variety of biological life, God pronounced it “very good”. The Hebrews understood human beings to be living souls, composed of both flesh and spirit. Dualistic philosophies which divided creation into matter (bad) and spirit (good) were not part of their theological framework. God created humans with the desire for intimate “one flesh” relationship with other human beings. While it is true that Mosaic law contained some rather strict rules about what kind of sexual relationships were permissible, the idea that sex itself is inherently “bad” or owes more to Gnosticism and related philosophies than to the Hebrew Bible. Sexuality was an integral part of the “very good” world God created and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”

I’m glad Song of Solomon made its way into the canon, because what it says to me is that God affirms the material world He created, which happens to include sexual attraction and enjoyment. There are some theologies which see the world and everything in it as impossibly ruined and evil, fated to one day be burned up in the fires of God’s judgement. But there are other visions of the future in the Bible: Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where swords are beaten into plowshares and everyone sits under his own vine and fig tree; Ezekiel’s vision of a river of life flowing out of the Temple and healing everything in its path; Jesus’s invitation to come to a heavenly banquet with abundant food and choice wines.

I don’t think the Bible teaches that the material world is evil.  I think it teaches that the material world disconnected from God is broken and in need of redemption. The material world, when connected to God, is very good. That’s what God intended, is working to accomplish with a little help from his human friends, and what will finally be. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Ecclesiastes: Is That All There Is?

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Koholeth, the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Existential angst is not a new thing, and it is eloquently expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon, which is probably why such an unorthodox if not outright agnostic book made its way into the canon. Many Biblical scholars believe it was actually written much later, perhaps sometime in the second or third centuries BC, after the fall of both Israel and Judah. Regardless of when it was written and by whom, Ecclesiastes describes the efforts of someone who had enough leisure time and resources to study and think deeply about the state of the world, only to conclude that it doesn’t make much sense.

Like the author of Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes notes that reality doesn’t corroborate the prevailing theology of an active and involved God who rewards good people and punishes bad people. He wants to believe that “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked,  for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” but he doesn’t see that happening in real life. He’s not sure what, if anything, happens in the afterlife. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” and  “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”

Koholeth  apparently enjoys a long enough life and sufficient financial resources to attempt many different ways of finding meaning in life: a hedonistic lifestyle involving alcohol and sex, wealth acquisition, creative expression, scholarly pursuits, public service. He concludes that none of his efforts are especially meaningful, lasting, or worthwhile (“meaningless as chasing the wind”) Trying to make sense out of a senseless world is depressing in itself. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  He advocates for a moderate lifestyleDo not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”  He thinks that people should try to enjoy their work, even if it is exhausting and has no lasting value, and their relationships while they can.“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. “

So why is Ecclesiastes included in our sacred scripture, and what can we learn from Koholeth? I’ve heard many suggestions over the years. One traditional explanation is that Solomon wrote it toward the end of his life, after he had been led astray from God by his many wives and alliances with pagan kingdoms. However, that theory has never been particularly satisfying to me, especially since I agree with the evidence placing the book’s origins in the post-exilic period. Rather, I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a cry of existential angst by someone who wants to believe, but can’t.

I’m glad that there is a place for Ecclesiastes in the Bible, because it says to me that there is a place for the doubters, the questioners, and the dreamers who want the world to make sense, yet believe that it doesn’t. I know plenty of people like that today, which confirms Koholeth’s observation that  “There is nothing new under the sun.” People like that remind me of the story in the gospel of Mark where a father seeking a cure for his epileptic son, grasping at what is probably his last straw, goes to Jesus. Jesus asks the father if he believes Jesus can help, and in complete and unadorned truthfulness, the father cries out “I believe: help my unbelief!”

Ecclesiastes shows that the traditional theology of the people of God as expressed in Mosaic law has reached its limits. It doesn’t work the way it was thought to work, and Koholeth knows that. And if we’re honest, so do we. Ecclesiastes, like John the Baptist, prepares the way for the One who is to come. And that’s really good news to me.