OK, that was different. Not quite your usual “thus says the Lord” Scripture readings, were they? Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you shall die? Sure, we’ve heard these kinds of things before – but from the Bible?!
What on earth is Ecclesiastes up to today?
Well, let’s dive in and see...
At first, it sounds like he’s saying work is a bad thing. The question “what gain have the workers from their toil?” in today’s first reading actually echoes a similar sentiment in our text for last week: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3) But then just a couple verses later he says it’s “God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil.” (3:13) And if we jump ahead to our second reading he advises: “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (9:10) So which is it? Is work good or bad?
The answer of course that work can be either good or bad. It depends on our perspective. Ecclesiastes was well-schooled in the Wisdom tradition, after all, and that good old proverbial work ethic. No sense lying around in bed all day – get up and be productive. “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider his ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6), and all that. Work can be a good thing. But the word toil, in Ecclesiastes, occurs with a whole host of negative words, words about weariness, and dissatisfaction. Toil, as he seems to define it, is not work or labor in its best sense, but something more like ‘the old grind.’ Toil implies work that’s draining, rather than life-giving.
And let’s face it. Sometimes that’s out of your ycontrol – if you’re stuck in a job that isn’t a good match with your gifts or interest, that doesn’t feel rewarding, that has more than it’s fair share of headaches with not a lot to show for it. Unfortunately, some kinds of work are like that.
I think in this particular context, though, Ecclesiastes is also talking about the old assumption that if we just toil long enough and hard enough—at whatever job we may have--we’ll have it made. That ever-popular (though false!) equation we try to operate with that tells us that an increase in our workload will automatically lead to an increase in our quality of life, even an increase in our control over life. Because when Ecclesiastes asks “what gain have the workers from their toil,” that little word “gain” is loaded too. It means advantage, surplus, excess, an extra edge, a protective buffer in life. And that’s something toil simply cannot guarantee.
Work can be a good thing, so long as we don’t expect it to solve all of life’s problems. Work can be rewarding and fulfilling when we keep it in perspective, and focus on doing our best, in the present, with our God-given gifts. But work can also be unhealthy—when it becomes only about getting ahead and storing up treasure for ourselves, or when it becomes the sole focus of our lives, completely out of balance with other priorities.
Because life is unpredictable, as Ecclesiastes keeps reminding us. We work and work and sometimes it pays off the way we hope it will. But sometimes we input and input and there’s no output—a feeling you’ll be all too familiar with if your computer has ever crashed before an important deadline, or if you’ve ever been laid off from a job to which you’d devoted yourself.
Ecclesiastes is not saying don’t work hard, but that being a workaholic doesn’t bring you any ultimate advantage in life. You’ve heard this logic before: no one wishes on their deathbed they’d spent more time at the office. Surely the same could be said about time spent running errands. Or cleaning the house. It’s human nature to think we can control life, make things come out the way we want them to, if we just try hard enough. But it doesn’t always work that way. And instead of ultimate mastery over our lives, we can be rewarded with burnout, exhaustion, disillusionment.
It needn’t be so, says Ecclesiastes. There’s a better way.
So then, what do we do? Let’s say the logic of this book appeals to you so far. Let’s say you’ve resonated over the last couple of weeks with its descriptive words about the rhythms and patterns of life, its candid observations about the uncertainties of life, and you’ve been waiting with baited breath for the punch line of Ecclesiastes. The “so what.” The how, then, do we live part.
Here it is: CARPE DIEM! Seize the day!
There’s a famous old bumper sticker slogan—I’ll resist quoting it verbatim from the pulpit—but let’s just say it puts forth very succinctly the observation that CRUD HAPPENS. . . And I’ll admit it could be considered a loose paraphrase of parts of the book of Ecclesiastes. Bad stuff happens. There’s no denying it. But here’s the flip side. Good happens and Joy happens too. And as concerned as Ecclesiastes is with not glossing over the tough times, he is just as concerned with reminding us to notice the good in life, to embrace it, to enjoy it. That’s what today’s Scripture lessons are really all about.
“I know” he says, “that there is nothing better for [us] than to be happy and enjoy [ourselves] as long as [we] live; moreover it is God’s gift that [we] should eat and drink and take pleasure in all [our] toil.” (3:12-13) “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” (9:7) And while you’re at it, pull those party clothes out of storage, get yourself spiffed up, and head out on the town. Treasure your relationships. Enjoy your work. (9:8-10)
In other words, live for the present! Seize the day! Life can be a real pain in the neck sometimes. It can also be wonderful. Give thanks for the wonderful bits. In the midst of life’s many uncertainties, make the most of what you can. Work can be good – enjoy it. Play can also be good – enjoy that. Try to keep a healthy balance between the two. Food and drink can be good, in moderation of course, and time with the people you care about can be very good – enjoy them too. Recognize all these things as the gifts of God they are. Don’t let your few days under the sun slip away without taking advantage of the best life has to offer.
January is a great time to pause and consider – how can we make the most of the moments we’re given this year? Whether it be a beautiful afternoon of sunshine in an otherwise gray month. Or a half-hour of quiet in a busy week. A call from an old friend. Or an evening at home with the family. Don’t let that precious gift slip by, says Ecclesiastes. Seize it. Enjoy it.
Kids can be great models for us in seizing the moment – like the toddler who, even on the way to her favorite swing at the playground, will suddenly stop dead in her tracks to examine a rock or a dandelion from every possible angle, and then present it with great flourish to her parent.
Children are a good reminder to take this advice in another way, too. You may have heard it said that “100 years from now, it won’t matter what the balance in my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” And of course it can be as true of friends & neighbors as it is of our family. What is lasting in this life, really? What are the things that really make a difference? Put your energy there, says Ecclesiastes. Don’t just stumble past God-given opportunities to be kind, to be loving, to be generous. And don’t put them on hold, assuming they’ll be around when you finish your to do list. Seize those moments as the gifts they are.
Again, this isn’t about denial – the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the tragic side of life head-on. It’s not because he doesn’t notice that bad things happen, but precisely because of that observation that he gives this advice. It takes a fair amount of courage, in fact, to look life and death squarely in the face, and then instead of crawling into a hole somewhere to get away from it all, to absolutely embrace life.
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. A dangerous message? Absolutely. You can see how, read out of context, these kinds of words could sound like a call to hedonism – to seeking out pleasure for its own sake. This book came very close to being left out of the Bible – and I expect that was part of the reason. But in context, we know that’s not at all what he’s saying. Remember, enjoyment isn’t necessarily lasting. We can’t really save it up for later. And joy or pleasure isn’t an end in itself, either – the author told us back in chapters 1 and 2 that he tried that for awhile, and found it to be a chasing after the wind.
But when your work or your family or your schedule offers you a chance to be joyful – grab it! That’s certainly how Jesus lived his life. No one could accuse him of ignoring its tragic side – of that, he was painfully aware. But as you read through the gospels, notice how he also took advantage of the beautiful moments that came his way, celebrating with friends, eating a great meal, spending time with a child, stealing a moment alone on a mountaintop or at the edge of the water.
There’s no point denying that bad things happen in this world. Things will happen around you, to you, at you, that you cannot control. But remember that there are good surprises in the mix, along with the bad. Embrace them. Enjoy them. In the face of life’s many challenges, grab hold of the good, in your play and in your work, as God’s gracious gift to you. In the midst of all its uncertainty, life is worth living, and worth living well. So carpe diem, friends! Seize the day!