“Vain” is one of those words that has multiple meanings and can be used in several different ways. We use it when talking about someone who is arrogant and self-centered. One thinks of Hollywood movie stars or perhaps of some TV talk show hosts who are hollow and conceited. Home furnishings called “vanity tables” are built for the purpose of holding mirrors and various beauty aids. “Vain” can be used when describing our efforts that end up being worthless. Folks that are constantly letting you know about their accomplishments are vain and conceited. When we strive for something that is hollow or worthless we eventually realize that all of our efforts were spent in vain.
In Ecclesiastes (1:2; 2:21-23), the word vanity is applied to everything that is not directed toward God, everything that is directed toward the things of this world.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill, and yet to another who has not labored over it, he must leave property. This also is vanity and a great misfortune. For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.
That’s practical advice. How many sleepless nights have we spent tossing and turning with worries and concerns that either have not come to pass or which we eventually realize were ultimately worthless?
Likewise, St. Paul (Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11) gives us wise advice when he tells us we should rid ourselves of immorality, impurity, passion, lustful desires and all of the fool’s gold offered us by the worldly. Why? Because in the long run all such things are worthless and empty and all of our energies devoted to those things will be vain. Is lusting the path to happiness? What will it all mean and what value will it have when we meet Christ face to face?
We live in a very competitive world, a world that tells us we are really somebody when we are popular, when we have clothes or money, or look more beautiful than others, a world that judges our value on what we have or how we appear. Our professions, the advertising industry¸ the world of fashion, and even our academic institutions are all built on measures of value that have nothing to do with how God sees us and values us. Who does not want to be Number One? Who among us in our competitive world does not want to come out on top? Who among us does not want to be the most popular? But the question you need to face and I need to face is: Who is measuring our value?
In the end, like the man Jesus was talking about in the Gospel of Luke (12:13-21), the man who was so concerned about the things of this world, we may hear God saying to us: You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Jesus gives us fair warning in telling us: Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
On the day we die, what can we give back to God that came to us from this life, a life that He gave to you and to me? Will it be our real estate holdings? A big bank account? Our popularity? Fine clothes? A fancy car? Death, the great leveler, will render what this world values to be valueless. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
God wants us to die rich; He wants us to give Him a life that has value, a life that was lived well, rich in meaning and not lived in vain. What He wants and what we can give Him, regardless of our economic position or our social status, is a spirit, a soul that is richly adorned with attitudes and personality characteristics that are similar to those of Jesus Christ. The riches of this world are extrinsic to our souls rather than intrinsic. We should be pursing what is intrinsic and will be part of us forever rather than what is extrinsic and will disappear when we die.
Some Christians advocate a certain false sort of piety, one based on the notion that we are nothing and ought to consider ourselves to be nothing. It’s a sort of so-called humility that falsifies the riches that God wants us to have. We must be rich in the eyes of God. It’s true that by ourselves we can do nothing but it is also true that with God there is nothing we cannot do. After all, God wants us to grow, to mature, to develop characteristics that are rich in the gifts that God has given to us. God does not create junk and He does not want us to consider ourselves to be junk. We do not honor God our Father in heaven by considering ourselves to be worthless.
Worldly people are afraid to die. Their feelings of self-worth are centered on things, not on virtues. The worldly would have us think the only place to have happiness is here in this world. They adorn themselves with the cosmetics of this world and attempt to cover death with cosmetics. The world values us by what we have of this world’s trinkets rather than by what we can give to God when we die.
We stew too much, stew over what we don’t have. We stew over our losses, about preserving what we’ve got. But the truth is that each day has its own gains, its own gifts along with some losses. We need to value what really matters, what is of lasting value, not what is passing. We need to value the love we have given, the love of God that can be present in the love we have given to others.
Each of our days is filled with the presence of the Son of God. The risen Christ is present in the each days rising sun. Every sun rising carries within it the Resurrection of Jesus. Likewise each tomorrow brings with it a fresh start, a new beginning, and the opportunity to live in the new life given us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. True, there will be gains and losses, just as there were in the life of Jesus. The crucial thing is for you and me to find Him in our todays and tomorrows so that we can receive and share His presence with those around us. With that vision we can wake up from the night of death and rise in the presence of God where we will find that our losses in this world and our gains in the life God has given us will not have been in vain.
In the the Psalm (90) response between the first and second reading we hear: Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days. And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours; prosper the work of our hands for us! Prosper the work of our hands!
Without God we can do nothing of lasting value. With God everything we do will have great value. May God prosper the work of your hands so that nothing you do will have been done in vain.