Vanity of vanities?

During these lockdowns, we see many people struggling as job losses mount and many others struggling with underemployment.

Jun 19, 2021

Anil Netto
During these lockdowns, we see many people struggling as job losses mount and many others struggling with underemployment. 

School leavers are struggling to find jobs. Many have resorted to taking on work with little job security or opportunity for advancement. 

The government, it seems, has little money left to help vulnerable groups. At this rate, the lower-income group will be  stretched to break point, while many in  the middle class could sink. But not all are suffering equally, as some have profited enormously from this period of crisis and suffering. 

The nation itself is in a political crisis as  Parliament remains suspended, perhaps the only country in the world with a non-functioning parliament in this pandemic.

People are unable to visit loved ones in other districts, while even those in elderly  care homes have been cut off from their  family members.

Even during these tough times, we still  hear of projects that will cause environmental harm, whether it is forest clearings, land grabs or land reclamation that will displace fisher folk.

All this should shake us out of our stupor.  Our development model has pursued profit over people and the planet, while leaving  many others marginalised and vulnerable. 

At times like this, we can reflect on the  futility of all those mega-projects – now  largely empty monuments and towers that  once made us proud that we had ‘arrived’.

These lockdowns should also make us reflect on our role in the world and what  really matters in life. If we are not the salt  of the earth, then our life is in vain.

As Ecclesiastes 1:2 puts it: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Or as another version of Scriptures puts  it:

2 Sheer futility, Qoheleth says. Sheer futility: everything is futile!
3 What profit can we show for all  our toil, toiling under the sun?
4 A generation, a generation comes,  yet the earth stands firm for ever. 
5 The sun rises, the sun sets; then to  its place it speeds and there it rises.
6 Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north; it turns and turns  again; then back to its circling goes  the wind.
7 Into the sea go all the rivers, and  yet the sea is never filled, and still to their goal the rivers go.

Yet, even this should be updated as sea  levels rise with climate change, and even places like Jakarta are sinking. Such is the  level of ruin that humanity has brought  unto the world that it has upset the established natural order.

Often, the ego gets in the way or perhaps  illusions of grandeur and power colour our  thinking, as in the account of the Tower of  Babel. Worldly leaders often like to leave a  legacy behind, often in the shape of monuments or mega-projects to match their egos. 

But all this is vanity and sheer futility as, in a generation or two, most of us  will be forgotten except for the butchers,  rogues and scoundrels of history and those  who have made exceptional contributions  to humanity. In Genesis, even the name  Abel meant vapour or breath or vanity in  Hebrew, a fleeting existence that was gone  in a puff, thanks to Cain. 

11 No memory remains of the past, and so it will be for the centuries to  come — they will not be remembered  by their successors.

This may be sobering, even depressing, but it should give us added impetus to work for a higher order in society, if our  life is not to be meaningless, in pursuit of  worldly glory. 

There can be no more meaningful pursuit than to ensure that our work and interactions further the kingdom that Jesus  heralded, for which the Holy Spirit provided the spark, the fire. We can do that in  our own little way, quietly and without any  show. 

This kingdom would be built on a foundation of love, justice, compassion, healing (for both people and the planet – “the  cry of the poor, the cry of the Earth”). It  involves building a world that is inclusive where the last shall be the first and everything is interconnected, in harmony with each other and with nature/the ecosystem.

And so, the perfect ‘antidote’ for any melancholy after reading Ecclesiastes during this lockdown is to reflect on our role in  building this kingdom, as spelt out in this  abridged version of the prayer of Oscar  Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us….
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need  further development.
We provide yeast that produces  effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in  realising that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the 
master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

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