Work is a Four-Letter Word–Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Driving east out of Kansas City on I-70, you can exit at Sterling Avenue. Where the off-ramp ends, you’ll always see one or several people holding signs that indicate their needs and particular pleas for assistance. In the rain, the snow, the baking sun, I don’t believe I have ever seen that corner empty. It must be a productive spot.

One of the reasons that these apparently homeless people frequent that intersection is that a little camp exists in the brush of a gully between the off-ramp and the interstate. You can’t see them from the road unless you look at just the right moment as you zoom by on I-70.

Yesterday, Solomon seemed to be praising people like these. If all labor is just driven by and the source of envy and strife, then aren’t those who don’t labor the most righteous? But today, he seems to cut back the other way.

The fool folds his arms
and consumes his own flesh.
Better one handful with rest
than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:5-6

Those lines of poetry are a bit confusing. The first two appear to criticize that person on the corner. Those grubby folks with their signs, living rough and risky, are consuming their own flesh.

The second pair of lines, however, goes the other direction on first glance. Is the lazy person foolish or wise, choosing one handful? Or are these two lines in the voice of the lazy fool? I’m not sure, but certainly there’s some conflict in these verses.

So which is it, Solomon? Is work wisdom or folly? In Proverbs, we hear an unequivocal condemnation of laziness:

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.

Proverbs 24:33-34

Why Work?

What does work do for us? Sure, it puts money into the bank account, but it also fills our time and uses up our energy. When I think about my work, I see myself grading bad freshman essays for more than 30 years. It’s mind numbing and keeps a body indoors. Why do I do it? My hope is that as I continue toward retirement, I’ll build up finances that will allow me to live however I want in those later years. Great plan.

But then I see my in-laws with their deteriorating health. I see a cousin who is recently retired and dying from cancer. I see others who get to retirement financially set but without a clue as to how they might spend their time and money. Some retirees seem determined to use RVs and lottery tickets to fuel their happiness.

Let’s just face it: work seems to be something that causes problems if you do it and even bigger problems if you don’t.

Getting in Tune

So do you think that our man Solomon was aware that he was pulling on both ends of this rope? I’m guessing he saw it clearly. This work-or-no-work conundrum is one that every human needs to try to solve. And that, I’d argue, is the point.

Jesus does not call us to “seek first the kingdom of work,” but he also has harsh words for the rich fool with his self-indulgent retirement plan. When we read the accounts of the early church selling assets to help each other out, we know that if that generosity wasn’t accompanied by paying work, then the operation was not sustainable.

Clearly we’re called to find a “Goldilocks” approach to labor: not too little, not too much, but just right. In his wisdom, Solomon doesn’t tell us what “just right” is. Instead, he starts us thinking about the matter, so that we can get closer to our own “just right.”

So what’s your “just right”? Are you sure it’s right?

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.