Give Us Our Daily Tortillas!–Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

At the end of the school year, my employer is decent enough to pay out my nine-month contract in one giant lump sum. Effectively, that means that on May 31, I get the six paychecks that would normally come from that date until August 15. Effectively, that means that I, right now, have a very large sum of money in my checking account just aching to be spent.

The way I have it figured, we can eat dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant for about $25. That means that $1,000 will see us through 40 meals at La Fuente. Assuming that we might miss a day here or there, $2,000 would pretty well feed us on tacos al pastor and whatever it is Penny eats for the entire summer. Talk about rejoicing and enjoying the good life! Solomon could have been talking about us:

I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life. It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats, drinks, and enjoys all his efforts. 

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13

Was Koheleth really talking about a daily serving of enchiladas or am I perhaps missing the point? I ask, because that second verse seems to run straight against the teaching of Jesus. In Luke 12, He relates the Parable of the Rich Fool. You might remember that a farmer has a huge crop and determines to store it up and coast on his wealth.

Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”

Luke 12:19

Those two verses sound pretty similar, but what Solomon praises, Jesus condemns. Is this another one of those contradictions that prove the Bible untrue?

To answer that question, let’s read those two passages carefully to see if they truly do run in complete opposition to each other. What precisely does Ecclesiastes say? “It is also the gift of God whenever anyone eats . . . ” If I take this verse to heart, then I’m recognizing that the money in my bank account is a gift of God. On the other hand, the Rich Fool doesn’t acknowledge God at all. He behaves as if he’s rich simply because of his own efforts.

What should we do with the gift of God? The Parable of the Talents makes that very clear. We have a responsibility to wisely use the gifts that God gives us. We shouldn’t bury them in the ground or bury them in our own flesh.

Does this mean that Ecclesiastes has it wrong? Are we mistaken to eat, drink, and enjoy our efforts? Of course not. Jesus’ teaching is not a call to complete self-denial. He dined and celebrated with people during his ministry. He went to that wedding at Cana. I can’t imagine Jesus sitting back and clucking in disapproval at people having a moderate good time: “Did you make sure that meat was humanely raised and locally sourced? And by the way, you should only eat a portion about the size of a deck of cards!” I could be wrong, but that sort of thing seems like substituting one form of legalism for another.

To balance these two stories, we simply have to enjoy the good things that God has provided without forgetting that it was Him that provided them. That’s an easy concept to grasp. I wish it were easier to put into practice.

Did I Write Anything Today?

It’s 4:15pm as I type these words, recognizing that I haven’t written anything today. I shouldn’t feel bad, since I’m now about three months into a string of daily postings. In fact, I have actually written ahead some seven days (which explains why my entries each day seem so hopelessly out of date).

Why does it matter if I have written anything today? Wouldn’t it be okay for me to give things a rest for a day or so, what with the summer beginning and school out? I could offer a lengthy and thoroughly thought-out response to these questions, but instead, I’ll just pluck a two-word answer from Jesus’ own lips.

“You fool!”

In the parable of the rich fool, which I visited a little over a year ago, Jesus tells about the farmer who, after bringing in a bumper crop, decides to coast on his wealth, to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” All of this is lurking in Luke 12:13-21.

Back in 1998, I published my doctoral dissertation. That was nice, seeing a hardback book with my name on the cover. Feel free to pick up copy if you like: Haunted by Waters. I’m proud of that accomplishment, but 20 years later, I have to recognize that it doesn’t amount to a great deal today. The royalties stopped coming my way pretty soon after it was published, and you don’t find the title on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. If I were to point to this accomplishment when conferring with my dean for my annual review, he might well say,

“You fool!”

But he’s too polite for that. He’d just redirect my attention and ask me what I’ve done lately.

The sacrifice of Christ, was perfect, performed once and for all time:

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.–Hebrews 9:28

But my acts of worship, my living sacrifice, if it is going to have any real meaning, must be acknowledged as imperfect. It must be done day by day. In short, I need to write today.

Years ago, Penny struggled to recruit children’s Sunday School teachers in our former (not so enthusiastic) church. With call after call, she heard people say, “I’ve done my time.” In those people’s mind, they’d made their sacrifice, apparently perfecting it with a few years teaching the second graders. But there’s another answer to those people:

“You fool!”

My age of service should never end. My age of worship must never cease. It’s like that repeated line from the D-Day movie The Longest Day. When British glider troops capture a key bridge, they are ordered to “Hold until relieved.” My work with the children of my church should be done until I’m relieved. My service as a deacon should persist until I am relieved. I should pick up my pen (or my keyboard) and hold until relieved. Granted, God might shift my efforts to some other endeavor, but He has not set a date for my retirement that does not coincide with my inability, through death or disability, to function. To think otherwise, would earn a rightly scornful response:

“You fool!”

The Rich Fool’s New Car

I’m buying a new car today. It’s not actually new but new to me. It’s a sweet ride and a bit of an indulgence. Do I really need it? Not exactly. Is it okay for me to buy it? Good question. Let’s weigh the options.

After using the parable of the rich fool to opine about binge TV and wasting time, I found myself looking back to the actual parable and what it says about possessions. So let’s remind ourselves of it:

A rich man’s land was very productive. He thought to himself, “What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops? I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there.  Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.'”

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?” (Luke 12:16-20)

What a fool! We can all agree on that, right? But what should the rich fool have done? What actions in response to his great harvest would have earned him God’s approval rather than disdain? What could this man do with his bumper crop other than use it to coast into the sunset? Let’s explore the possibilities.

He could leave it out exposed to the elements where the rain and the rats would compete to ruin it first. Surely we can agree that God would not be pleased with that sort of stewardship.

He could give it away to the needy. Is that a good use of the crop? Apparently the rich man was going to be able to feed himself and his entourage for many years to come. It stands to reason that he could have fed a much larger group for a shorter span of years. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But of course when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t spend or give away the same dollar (or bushel of grain) twice.

He could sell it and then invest the proceeds. If this man had a hundred acres, perhaps his excess could be sold in order to fund the purchase of a hundred or two hundred more acres. Whatever good could be done with the crop from the smaller lands could be magnified on the larger lands. But is purpose of profit simply to generate a bigger empire to create ever-bigger profits?

He could store it for a time of need. This is how Joseph saved Egypt in Genesis, isn’t it? The rich man could store his grain and then keep on producing more for future consumption. Then, when a bad situation arises, he could draw from those reserves and save the day. The downside to this approach is that he still has to build storage facilities and protect this reserve until bad times come.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell us what the rich fool should have done. He just lets us know that the man made the wrong choice. Is there a right answer to what he should have done?

Is there a right answer to what I should do with the extra money that appears in my bank account from time to time? In the past year, I’ve done some of all of these things. I’ve indulged a little bit. I’ve given some money and goods away. I’ve invested some money toward tomorrow, and I’ve simply stuck some into a savings account for an unforeseen need, like the opportunity to buy a car. Did I do it right?

Since Jesus didn’t give us exact instructions for dealing with whatever plenty he provides, I have to assume that he had a different way for directing us. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that through the Holy Spirit, “we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ lets me know when I’m mishandling both my money and my time. I just have to ask and then listen to the response.

What does that say about the car? In reality, this choice is a no-brainer. The car pleases me, is priced right, can be purchased (easily) for cash, and should keep me driving reliably for another four or five years. And did I mention that it pleases me? Jesus never said we shouldn’t enjoy life a little.

Binge Living

Lately, I’ve been making my way through Mad Men, which is, to my mind, a terrific morality play about the vanity of human wishes and all of that sort of stuff. The central character, Don Draper, seeks and seeks for something, but he never seems to find it.

Today, however, I really don’t want to focus on the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing Draper but upon the non-drinking, non-smoking, monogamous me. Yesterday, you see, I watched an episode of Mad Men. Or perhaps it was two. Okay, having looked back on it, I see that it was actually five. Five episodes of Mad Men in a single day.

To be fair to myself, I finished up an outside writing assignment a couple of days ago. There’s no grading to do, and the weather is too chilly for yard work. Nothing else was demanding my time, so I spent nearly five hours watching the ad men of the 1960s muddle through their complicated lives.

In reflecting on those five hours this morning, I was reminded of the lead-in to Jesus’ parable of the rich fool. In those verses, after refusing to arbitrate the inheritance dispute of two brothers, Jesus broadens out the point, warning everyone to beware of greed, because “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

While that parable is rightly used to discuss the folly of people who think too much of their possessions–people who perhaps worry about where their financial security will be found or who get a little proud and cocky about the magnitude of their 401K–I’m taken with that quotation above from Luke 12:15: “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

What the Greek indicates there is pretty clearly indicated in the King James and other translations: a man’s life consists not in possessions. The version quoted above uses a perfectly acceptable although perhaps less elegant English word, “is.”

This “is” translation allows the verse to be read in a different manner. What Jesus pretty clearly meant to say is that we should not measure our lives in terms of things. However, when we read “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions,” we can take it to mean that a person’s lifespan is not as abundant as a person’s possessions. In other words, “Your days are less abundant than your things.”

To be clear, that’s not what Jesus meant to say, but I think it is a useful concept for us and certainly not doing violence to his overall message. When we waste time, when we, like the rich fool, “take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy,” we’re not tuned in to the things of God. When God blesses us with extra time, he expects us to steward that time just as surely as we are to steward the riches he might put within our grasp.

We’re warned in Proverbs 23:33: “a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest, and your poverty will come like a robber, and your need, like a bandit.” Let’s recall that not all poverty, not all need can be measured in terms of dollars.

Rule #4: Set specific intentions

torah-scrollI have been exploring the individual rules listed in an article called “Ten Rules Fit People Live By,” evaluating each of them in the light of Biblical teaching. You can check out Rule #1, Rule #2, or Rule #3. Today, we get to examine rule #3: Set specific intentions. Here’s how the author explains this rule.

The more detailed your daily goals and plans, the better. In his book, Harper cites an English study on women enrolled in a weight loss program: The researchers asked about half of their subjects to write down their strategies for managing temptation (for example, When sugar cravings strike, I will make a cup of tea). After two months, those women had lost twice as much weight as women in a control group.

On the surface, this rule seems like a great idea. I’m a goal-oriented person. I set goals (or objectives or plans) for the day, the week, the month, and the year. For example, I have a goal for calorie intake for today. My goal is simple. I’m going to eat no more than 1,750 calories plus one half of the calories I burn through exercise. When I exercised this morning, I burned about 980 calories, so I will allow myself 490 extra calories to be eaten. At the end of the day, my calorie count should be less than 2,240. Good goal, right? It’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timed. It’s S.M.A.R.T.! Yesterday, I didn’t meet that goal, going a bit bananas as I watched recorded episodes of NCIS before heading to bed. Still, the goal was good and serves me almost every day.

Similarly, I never go out to run without a distance and/or a pace in mind. I don’t lift weights without knowing what exercises I’ll do at what weights and what reps. Goals are good, especially when they help us with things that could get lost in imprecision. For example, it’s a lot easier to say I’ll eat no more than 2,240 calories than to say, I’ll “eat right” or “cut back a bit.”

Goals are biblical. In Proverbs 21:5, we are admonished, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty,” while Jesus shared the peculiar little parable about building  tower in Luke 14:28: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

But goals can become an end in themselves. I think that’s why James 4:13-15 warns us about getting too involved in our goals and plans:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

I think the same basic message lies behind the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. We set goals. We try to achieve our goals. Sometimes we make it; sometimes we don’t, but trying is a good thing. When, however, those goals become our god, when our goals replace the goals God would establish for us, then we’re just as guilty of idolatry as those who bow down to Baal.

So in the end, rule #4 is a good one but one that can be misapplied. Remember that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Absent that, there are no wise goals.