11th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C
Luke 12:13-21 & Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26
Attending to the Soul
I sent a note to our listserve of students this week. There were things I thought I might put in the note, but stopped after completing the opening line. That first sentence read, “I miss you.”
I do miss them. The summers are great. But when we suspend the Wednesday night student meals, something about who I am gets lost. I am a campus pastor. And while that identity includes work beyond chaplaincy with the students, it is difficult to be a campus pastor when there aren’t students around.
I share these thoughts on my identity as a way of starting a conversation this morning about identity. Not just my identity, but the identity of each of us. Identity is important. The way in which we define ourselves – or find ourselves being defined – gives us direction and purpose in life. Finding our identity is more than an exercise in navel gazing - it is a practical necessity.
Today’s lessons talk about identity. The Gospel story raises questions about Jesus’ identity. Who was he and what did he came to do. Gaining a hold on his identity gives us direction as we try to establish our own. From Ecclesiastes we hear words which would help us find our identity in that which is lasting and sure.
What isn’t very lasting or sure are our possessions. The Gospel lesson in particular reminds us that our identity should not be found in the things that we own.
Possessions are at the root of the request made to Jesus as he is walking along. Someone in the crowd stops Jesus and says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” While we might think it odd that such a request be made, let’s make sure we see it as odd for the right reasons.
The right reason is not because this is an unreasonable request to make – even of Jesus. In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus, it was the teachers of the Law who decided matters such as inheritance. When you had a dispute against your brother, or any other member of the community, you would go to a teacher and ask them to settle the matter for you.
This man may have been justified in seeking the assistance of a well known and respected teacher. His brother might not have done that which is right in the eyes of the law. In ancient Israel, at the time of Jesus, the first born son in a family was entitled to all of the father’s inheritance. The father could instruct the eldest son to divide the inheritance among the other sons. Legally, the elder son had the right to ignore his father’s wishes. However, to do so, he would be ignoring the commandment to Honor Father and Mother. Only a teacher of Hebraic Law could weigh the testimony and say what is expected. The man who comes to Jesus might have been seeking justice in such a situation. The man may have had a legitimate grip against his brother. And coming to a “Teacher” is what one was instructed to do.
And yet, Jesus rebukes the man. He says to him, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus ignores the man’s request. He refuses to give the man what he wanted. But why? Jesus’ response suggests it may have to do with Jesus’ identity. He is not here as a judge or arbitrator of the ancient laws; he is here to fulfill another purpose.
That purpose, comes into focus in the parable which Jesus tells.
In the parable, the thing we might miss is the significance of the language the man uses as he speaks to himself. Seeing all the possesses which he has accumulated, he says, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years…..relax, eat, drink and be merry.’” In speaking to himself he speaks to his “soul.” That is the English translation of the Greek word. The Greek word literally means the “whole of who I am.” To speak to one’s “soul” is to speak to that which is even greater than one’s self.
The “whole of who I am” is more than my possessions. The “whole of who I am” also includes that part of us which came to us as a gift from God. The man speaks to “the whole of who I am” failing to remember that part of who he is is the breath that God breathed into his nostrils of clay. He fails to remember that with each breath, God reenters our bodies and thus makes “the whole of who I am” possible.
The man has confused who he is with what he has. He thinks that what he has identifies him. He forgets that it is God who gives us our life and the very breath we breathe.
And so, seeing this person’s inability to understand his true identity, God comes to reclaim what God has given. God leaves the man with the things which he has accumulated. But, of course, the man is now without the thing which he most needs to order to be the whole of who he strives to be.
Jesus tells this parable in order to help the crowd understand that we find our identity not in the things we own but in the one who is our Lord. The man who comes to Jesus is like the man in the parable – they miss an opportunity to obtain an identity which cannot be taken from them.
Jesus is not some judge, sent to serve as arbitrator or interpreter of the law. He is the one who identifies us as brothers and sisters, children of the Heavenly Father. God gives us our identity, not the things we own.
Nor can we find our identity in the things which we think.
The small section of Ecclesiastes read for us this morning deals with possessions. But if we look at the entire book, we see a much broader presentation of mislaid identities.
Ecclesiastes was probably written sometime around the 3rd century B.C.E. At that time, there was within Hellenistic culture the notion that underlying all of life were undeniable, universal truths. Sometimes, individual religions were seen as little more than alternate methods for approaching this universal truth. You followed the teachings of a particular prophet or guru and hopefully moved beyond their words and into the realm of universal truth.
This school of thought had a profound influence on the religion of the Israelites. Yahweh, being the one true God, certainly led the way in the search for this universal wisdom. The book of Proverbs is an example of such thought. In those writings, you begin to see "wisdom" as a personified agent of God. Scriptural law and the writings of the prophets came to be seen more as the revelation of wisdom than as a record of God's historical activity.
The writer of Ecclesiastes felt that those who adopted such thinking had mislaid their identity. They were seeking to find themselves in the pursuit of universal truth, in the pursuit of wisdom. Many had shunned all possessions, so as to be free to truly pursue wisdom. The trouble is that no less than the rich man in Jesus' parable, they too had defined themselves in terms inconsistent with who they really were.
The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we don't find who we are in the pursuit of things, nor do we discover our identity in the pursuit of wisdom.
An interesting concept is lost in the translation of these passages into English. The word, vanity, used so many times in this book, denotes a breath. Vanity is exhaled air that disappears. When we speak, no matter how eloquent, no matter how insightful, no matter how wise, all we are doing is exhaling. Our thoughts, like our breath, dissipate and disappear.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher ... All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes, thus, represents a protest against the ever-present temptation of faith to shore up its own uncertainty with dogmatism and against the constant tendency of human understanding to overrate its potentiality. We don't find our identity in our great thoughts or in our eloquent words.
So, if our possessions don't define us and neither does our wisdom (which you can further divide into knowledge, or insight, or understanding.) What's left? How do we define who we are? What makes us, us?
Put most simply, what makes me me is the identity I have received as a gift from God. Put most simply, what makes you you is the image of God which you bear and the breath of God which fills your lungs.
Searching for an identity elsewhere is – well, vanity.