Planting Trees in Concrete
TEXT:Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14,2:18-23
The story is told of an Hasidic rabbi in the last century, who refused to promise a friend that he would visit the next day: "'How can you ask me to make such a promise? This evening I must pray and recite "Hear, 0 Israel." When I say these words, my soul goes out to the utmost rim of Iife...Perhaps I shall not die this time either, but how can I now promise to do something at a time after the prayer?'
""Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." The words mean an utmost limit, an absolute beyond which nothing is left. "Vanity of all vanities;" to the furthest extent imaginable, and then some. Nothing greater can be imagined. All is vanity. Everything. Whatever you consider, says the Teacher, is considered in vain. All is vanity and striving after emptiness.
It's not coincidence that Ecclesiastes comes after the Book of Proverbs in the
Hebrew Scriptures. It is a direct assault on the wisdom of the book it follows, the book that says it is:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young-
Let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
"I, the Teacher," says Ecclesiastes, "when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind." But the book of Proverbs also says: ''The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:" And it says this: ''The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." Both books, then, claim the same author; both books claim the same purpose.
Proverbs teaches you to be shrewd, knowledgeable, and prudent, to gain in learning, and acquire skill. Ecclesiastes says that all these things are vanity, and striving after wind. Because Proverbs can be understood to say that you can control your destiny; and Ecclesiastes says, your only destiny, is death. Whatever you do, says the Teacher, someone else will inherit, and what good is it to you in the grave? And will they be wise, as you were, or a fool, and make a mockery of your life's ambition, your desire to leave something behind, something permanent to show you were here? In the face of that, would you long, then, for immortality, so you might live forever and always be in control? Even if your days were endless, that would not be a joy. "What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity."
Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Truly, no ransom avails for one's life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice
that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.
When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Or, as Jesus says in the parable: "'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
When the rabbi stood and prayed "Hear, 0 Israel," he was reciting the prayer about the very nature of God, and the very nature of life: "Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One!" This is why his soul goes out to the utmost rim of life. His life, all life, is in and from the Creator. The vanity is not life; it is the arrogance to think that we understand life, that we have control, in some measure, of our life. To approach God is to approach the utmost rim of life. We stand always before the God who could say to anyone of us: 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'" "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge."
Planting trees in concrete is an absurdity. It's a contradictory effort, doomed to failure. Vanity of vanities; it is certainly an empty striving, a useless concept. But believing that God is real in our world, and then acting like it, is to engage in an absurdity, too. To say God is concrete, God is real, as real as the pew you are sitting on, the walls around you, the person next to you, is like trying to plant a tree where no tree will grow. You can say the words; but you know the minute you say them, that it is pointless; it can't even be considered. "When I say those words, my soul goes out to the utmost rim of life..." Who can say that, and say it makes sense? But if God is the Creator of the Universe, is the source of life and can take our life without a moment's notice, who can say it also is not true?" If God is present in our lives, in our world, who can say that God does not overwhelm everything we consider expected and ordinary? ''The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." But it's like planting trees in concrete.
In our concrete reality, in our little worlds, there is no room for God. The vanity of vanities is imagining that God fits into our everyday routine, that our ordinary lives can contain the Creator of the Universe. It is like planting trees in concrete, to suppose such a thing; an absurdity, but at the same time, you do not realize what you are doing. Surely this is vanity, and chasing after wind.
Because when God enters our little worlds, everything is undone. In the parable of the rich fool, there was no room for God; and when God intruded, the rich fool's world was blown apart. He finds himself flung to the utmost rim of life, and finds he cannot now return. Surely all worldly pursuits are vanity and striving after emptiness, in the presence of the Creator of the Universe.
All our efforts are planting trees in concrete; except we "seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God." "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth," Paul says, Christ says, Ecclesiastes says: ''for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory." All is vanity because you are already dead; because you life is hidden with Christ in God; hidden, and nothing you can do will cause it to be revealed. So everything we do is like planting trees in concrete; except we know we will be revealed with Christ in glory; and we know that, even though planting trees this way is vanity, with God, all things are possible. And what a fearsome knowledge that is.