Nothing makes sense. That’s how I read the author of Ecclesiastes when he says, “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” Repeatedly.
Maybe you’re a superstar in your chosen career. You’ve got a house in every state and the size of your stock portfolio makes Bill Gates feel small. So what! You’ll die like everybody else and your heirs will call themselves a big success if they manage to hang on to ten percent of that loot.
Then again, maybe you’ve washed your hands of the emblems of worldly success. Instead, you live among the poor. Feed the hungry. Comfort the suffering. Console the dying.
Swell! You’ll be called a saint and admired by people who would never consider following in your footsteps. And then you’ll be worm food like everybody else. Trust me, the sun will keep rising and setting like it always has.
Nasty jerks live like kings and get away with murder. Compassionate, generous souls go hungry, get eviction notices, can’t make bail. Vanity. All is vanity. Nothing makes sense. Fairness is a sham. Justice is an illusion. There’s no point in doing anything.
You might ask yourself, “How on earth did a book like this make it into the Bible!?!” Cynicism, disappointment, and discouragement leap off the pages of Ecclesiastes. And honestly, I’m really glad that those pages made the cut for the final edition of Scripture. They assure me that truth resides between chapter one of Genesis and the closing lines of Revelation. Real human truth.
Sometimes we are disappointed. Discouraged. Even appalled. Sometimes the news tips me toward cynicism. Vanity. All is vanity.
You see, I take Jesus at his word. The kingdom has drawn near. The first will be last and the last will be first. We are moving toward God’s dream of the world where all of us see each other as the beloved children of God. We love God by loving our neighbor as a part of our very own flesh.
And then I see images of children in cages. Children ripped from the arms of their parents. Parents who had stumbled over perilous miles to reach a place of safety. A place that promises liberty and justice for all.
I hear the president of a nation built on the principles of freedom and equality praise a dictator. A well-fed autocrat whose subjects starve and who enforces rigid compliance with his regime by threatening deadly violence.
It’s jarring. The kingdom seems farther not nearer. As my heart breaks an unwelcome voice deep within me suggests that what I’ve taken to be God’s dream of justice is little more than a daydream. Vanity.
But Jesus has words for the writer of Ecclesiastes. Jesus has words for me and for those who have had a similar experience.
Mark’s Gospel passes along two parables that speak to us when things aren’t making sense to us. When justice seems like an illusion and we’re tempted to give up.
In the first parable, Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like someone scattering seeds. Eventually the seeds take root and sprout. Crucially, the one who scatters the seeds has no idea what actually makes those seeds grow.
For a time, nothing happens with the seeds. All that scattering work may seem to have been for nothing. After a while, the seeds grow and mature. They may not come up where the person expected. The waiting may have been frustratingly long. But they do grow.
Those seeds would not have grown without the scattering. That was the person’s only job. Scatter the seeds and trust it to someone else to make them grow in some way that you can’t quite understand. Do the good that you can do now. Even when it seems fruitless. Keep scattering seeds.
The second parable conveys a related message. The kingdom is like a mustard seed. Though tiny, that seed grows into a large plant. Some have pointed out that the mustard plant isn’t really as huge as the parable suggests. But that doesn’t undermine the parable’s truth.
There are large, powerful forces at work in this world: armies and governments and corporations. Our individual hands and friendship circles and churches may seem hopelessly small and ineffectual by comparison.
But Jesus assures us that something great at is at work in what seems small and insignificant on the world historical stage. God’s kingdom is drawing near through the humble, loving lives of people like you and me devoted to following the way of Jesus.
Sometimes we will grow discouraged. Appalled. Cynical. Circumstances on this planet can make the road we’re on seem to lead nowhere. We’re tempted to give up, give in, and collapse in a heap in the dust. Things stop making sense.
Jesus gets it. He was human, too. So, Jesus reminds us that we’re not in this alone. God is among us. The road is long, but it is not endless.
We have it in us to take the next step. And, oddly enough, we begin to make sense of things again precisely when take even the tiniest step forward.