Saturday Night Theologian
5 August 2007

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

What is the meaning of life? It's a question that has been pondered by great thinkers and people from all walks of life, from the ancient Greek philosophers to the Monty Python troop. Even more basic is the question, does life have any meaning at all? Most philosophical materialists would say that life has no meaning that individuals or societies don't assign it, while most philosophical idealists would contend that life does indeed have meaning, imbued by the creator or the universe, or simply self-existent. The author of Ecclesiastes explores the meaning of life, and at this point in his investigation, he laments the fact that the results of a life's labor will inevitably be lost at death. He does not seem to think, at this point in the book anyway, that life has any meaning. Rather, it is "vanity, chasing after the wind." I have two reactions to this analysis. First, since I'm not a philosophical materialist, I believe that life and the universe have inherent meaning, and it's our job to find it. For that reason, I find the pursuit of wisdom a valid pursuit, as long as the wisdom gained is used to benefit others as well as oneself. So my accumulated wisdom disappears (except perhaps for what is published) and my accumulated wealth, such as it is, is passed on to others. Big deal. Wisdom is never ultimately about the acquisition but about the pursuit. We can never gain all knowledge, but that doesn't matter. If our pursuit of wisdom--or any other pursuit that benefits humankind, for that matter--makes up happy, brings us to a greater understanding of God, or brings joy to others, who cares what happens to our wisdom after we're gone? Second, the author has a point about the passing on of wealth to future generations. Why are the children of the wealthy more deserving of the riches of their parents than the poor? There is something wrong with a society that allows vast accumulations of wealth to remain within a single family, especially since in many cases the children or grandchildren took few risks and contributed little of value to the enterprise. It seems fair for children to inherit heirlooms and perhaps even a certain amount of property and money from their parents, but where should the line be drawn? How much is too much to inherit? People will disagree over the dollar amount or percentage that is fair to inherit, but I cannot see any good argument behind the contention that the entire estate of the extremely wealthy ought to go to their heirs. That's just greed talking, and that truly is vanity. Ecclesiastes is one of the most neglected books in the Bible--as is evident from the fact that today's reading is one of only two passages from Ecclesiastes in the three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle (the other is Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, a reading for New Year's Day)--but its author raises some profound questions and is not content with simplistic answers. Our understanding of the world may be different today, and we may draw different conclusions, but the lifelong pursuit of wisdom that lies behind this book is well worth considering today.

Psalm 49:1-12

One of the headlines this week was Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of the Dow Jones company, which owns the Wall Street Journal. A journalist and former employee of Murdoch's was interviewed on the radio, and he said that this sale accomplished one of Murdoch's life-long goals, to own a concentration of media outlets that would allow him to shape the opinion of the world. As if he hadn't already done a bang-up job of that through Fox News and other right-wing publications. Why, at the age of 76, does Murdoch continue to pursue his dream of world domination, of a sort, rather than settle into a lavishly comfortable retirement? Some people are so strongly driven by the pursuit of wealth, dreams, wisdom, or adventure that they have no interest in settling into retirement. As Ulysses says in Tennyson's poem,

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,_
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,_
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
I'm not crazy about Murdoch's politics, but I have to appreciate his drive. Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm that considers the brevity of life. While pursuing his question, the psalmist makes a number of interesting remarks that are peripheral to his main line of questioning. First, he notes that wisdom is relevant to both low and high in society, both rich and poor. That indicates that its importance transcends and surpasses the importance of wealth, despite many people's views to the contrary. Second, he says, "I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp." The psalmist find value in pleasure, when pursued in a moderate fashion, and even a connection between enjoyment and learning. Any educator will tell you that students learn more when they enjoy the class, and the same applies to the individual pursuit of knowledge. Third, he understands that the wealthy may conquer the wise in individual cases, but ultimately wisdom will triumph. Finally, he notes that no amount of riches can deliver anyone from the grave, cryonics notwithstanding. Riches dissipate, but wisdom accumulates in a society, at least in one that values it. Does our society value wisdom more than wealth? The answer can be divined from an observation of how we spend our money as individuals and as the government, in particular the amount allocated to things like Head Start programs, public education, and higher education as compared with tax breaks for the wealthy. One example: the governor of Texas recently vetoed a bill that would have sent additional funds to community colleges, whose constituents are disproportionately poor, in comparison to the average college or university student. At the moment, I'd say that our society isn't faring too well.

Colossians 3:1-11 (first published 1 August 2004)

The point is, ladies and gentleman, greed is good. Greed works, greed is right. (Gordon Gekko, character played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street)
Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself. (Ivan Boesky, stock speculator)
The Western Church has always spoken out forcefully against fornication, impurity, passion, and evil desire, four of the five sins mentioned in Colossians 3:5. However, it has not always raised its voice nearly as strongly against the fifth sin, greed. It is not unusual today to find churches offering instruction on financial planning or wealth management alongside Bible study classes. Some ministers are notable for their conspicuous consumption, as are many parishioners. On the flip side, many outspoken Christians, such as Tony Campolo and Ron Sider (among others), regularly rail against the greed that is prevalent among Western Christians. The Roman Catholic Church in recent decades has issued several strong statements condemning the socioeconomic inequalities that result from unbridled greed (e.g., the papal encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Populorum Progressio). Perhaps the strongest collective voice condemning greed over the past thirty-five years has been the liberation theologians, people like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, and José Míguez Bonino. Some fundamentalists condemn people like these for being "liberal," apparently viewing them as a direct threat to their accumulation of wealth. Greed was wrong in the first century, and it is still wrong today. Support for this statement is found in one of the stories about Jesus found in the gospels. On one occasion Jesus was asked to teach a course on wealth management. His instruction was this: "Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me." If you are greedy and you still feel good about yourself, you're not following Jesus.

Luke 12:13-21 (first published 1 August 2004)

One of the centerpieces of President Bush's "tax reforms" was the repeal of the inheritance tax (a.k.a. the estate tax). Prior to Bush's signing of the legislation on 7 June 2001, people inheriting large estates paid between 37% and 55% in taxes on the amount over $675,000. After 1 January 2002, the amount exempted rose to $1 million, and the top tax rate on the remainder was reduced to 50%. The exempted amount continues to rise and the tax rate continues to fall through 2010, when the inheritance tax is eliminated completely. Although the law as passed has a sunset provision, which stipulates that the law will revert to its pre-2002 version in 2011 (this is an attempt to mute huge projected budget deficits after that point), efforts are already underway to make the elimination of the estate tax permanent. While this change in legislation, particularly if made permanent, provides an obvious boon to the ultra-rich, it is hard to see why the 98+% of people whose heirs wouldn't even pay taxes under the old system would support such a tax rollback for the rich. Part of the answer is in the marketing scheme developed by the ultra-rich, which refers to the inheritance tax as a "death tax." Another part of the answer is that many middle class people hope that someday either they or children will also be rich, so they hope that the law will someday be a benefit to them as well. In reality, of course, support for this law and other attempts to let the rich escape their moral obligations to society are based on one word: greed. It should be pointed out that many rich people oppose the elimination of the inheritance tax. William Gates, Sr., the Microsoft founder's father, has spoken out forcefully against the repeal, as have other wealthy individuals such as Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Ben Cohen. In today's gospel reading, Jesus warns his followers, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." The obsession with making money and hanging on to money is nothing new, as Jesus' parable illustrates. Planning for the future is reasonable, but putting one's faith in possessions rather than in God is a mistake. Depression, recession, inflation, deflation, revolution, corporate mismanagement, and embezzlement can all destroy a person's financial holdings, but nothing can break God's hold on those who are faithful.