Saturday, December 28, 2019

Time and Chance (16)

We all know people who we think work too hard. But what is “too hard” really? If we are honest, it’s a bit of a subjective call.

John the Baptist got by on locusts and wild honey, and was happy with one coat of camel’s hair and a leather belt. It’s pretty clear he didn’t have a day job. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head, and while he certainly labored non-stop, it was not with a view to acquiring earthly possessions. Still, nowhere in scripture do we find the expectation that all should live life the way Jesus or John lived. In fact, one of the reasons both John and the Lord Jesus were morally free to devote their lives to their respective missions was that they had incurred no earthly financial obligations to others.

For most of us, life is a bit more complicated. Not better, necessarily, but certainly more complicated.

Verses 7-8: Labor with No Long-Term Objective

For Whom Am I Toiling?

On that note, let us return to our studies in Ecclesiastes 4:
“Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”
I wrote recently about Christian incoherence, and the times it can inadvertently become a good thing. Generally speaking, however, this is not the case. Behaving logically and consistently with the facts on the ground is vastly preferable to the alternative.

Here, the Preacher considers the case of the workaholic whose obsessive drive for success is based on nothing more than habit or personal preference. He already has what he needs in the present, and has provided for himself for the future, but simply can’t quit pushing for more. However, in occupying himself with the business of accumulating wealth and the trappings of success, he has never stopped to do a cost-benefit analysis. Like many of us, he gives no thought to the reality that he is a finite being with only a limited number of years on this planet, and that his most precious resource is not money, but time ... or really, opportunity. He is burning through both in service of something from which he is decreasingly likely to benefit as the years go by.

The End of Opportunity

My own reading this morning reminded me of the case of Barzillai the Gileadite, an 80-year-old stalwart loyal to King David during Absalom’s rebellion. David is eager to reward Barzillai for his faithfulness, but receives an unexpected response: “I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women?”

Barzillai is not being rude or unappreciative of David’s offer to care for him in Jerusalem. He is being perfectly logical. Despite his own immense wealth, all normal human pleasures are now wasted on him. His senses do not behave as they used to. Taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing are all diminished to the point that the pleasures David offers him are no longer pleasurable. They would be lost on Barzillai.

The Chimham Factor

Hey, we’re all going there, and much quicker than we think. Our window for enjoying the “pleasures” Solomon speaks of grows shorter every day. This is true whether we are thinking of extravagant self-indulgence like that which Solomon enjoyed, or just the simple pleasures of a good meal and good company which anyone can. Barzillai’s “window” for almost all pleasures had already passed.

But Barzillai is sensible and coherent. He says, “Here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you.” Perhaps Chimham was a son, or perhaps a beloved servant or relative. In any case, he was younger, and could benefit from David’s kindness in a way Barzillai couldn’t. And though Barzillai could not enjoy the benefits of David’s home and lifestyle, Chimham could, and Barzillai could at least enjoy the pleasure of having made Chimham’s life better.

Sadly, in the case of the Preacher’s illustration in Ecclesiastes, this wealthy workaholic cannot even use the excuse that he is laboring in order to leave something to his heirs or loved ones. He has no “Chimham” to work for, and certainly has left himself with no opportunity to acquire or sire one. This is both pointless and incoherent.

Christian Labor

The Christian never finds him- or herself in this position when we work hard. If we are doing anything of lasting value, the question, “For whom?” can always be answered “For Christ.” There is not a single valid or valuable thing in this world that cannot be done “as unto the Lord”. It is “whatever you do.” As Paul puts it, “Work heartily. You are serving the Lord Christ.” We may or may not accumulate wealth, but we have the opportunity in all our service to be a living testimony to the One we serve. Whether we are using the fruit of our labors to raise a godly family, share with those in need, financially support the work of the Lord, or fund our own efforts as we serve, our labors are made valuable by the Lord to whom they are dedicated.

Naturally, this is not something the Preacher could have entered into or even contemplated. And, of course, we need to remind ourselves that merely appending the name of Christ to an activity does not make it his. Our labors are only really and truly his when we perform them as if satisfying him were their object and goal, and when we share his values in choosing how we spend our very limited time- and opportunity-capital.

Verses 9-12: Two Are Better Than One

And so the Preacher continues:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Ordinary Relationships

One thing we need to remember about serving Christ is that service is often expressed in perfectly ordinary ways; in ways that some might not even recognize as explicitly Christian or even religious. One of these is how we care for others and the value we place on those around us, especially family members. The unsaved do this too, but not for precisely the same reasons.

The New Testament repeatedly reminds us that piety expresses itself practically. Thus, the servant of Christ works with his hands in order to have something to share with anyone in need. The Christian father provides for his family members, especially his immediate household, or else his selfishness is a denial of faith. And the Lord Jesus himself warned that giving financial resources to God that ought rightly to be spent on needy family members effectively nullifies the word of God. There are labors that look pious and are not, and there are labors that look quite ordinary to others, but are in fact very pious indeed. But ordinary relationships dedicated to Christ and lived out in a Christian way can be pleasing to God and profitable to those who pursue them.

The Value of Ordinary

Back in Ecclesiastes 4, the Preacher is contemplating the value of these ordinary relationships which the Lord Jesus and the apostles advise believers to maintain and cultivate. His reasons for prizing friends and family are less spiritual and much more immediate and pragmatic than those of the NT writers, which is what we ought to expect from both the man and the time period, not to mention the earthly perspective on human relations which he is adopting. He cannot see the “Christian” rationale for valuing and maintaining these bonds between ourselves and others, but he knows doing so makes sense for three reasons:

1. Having a Backup Plan.  Life does not always work out the way we expect. The person who “falls alone” has nobody to lift him up. Remember, in Solomon’s day, there was no social safety net; no short- or long-term disability plans, no pensions, and no medical benefits to fall back on. The man or woman who lived their lives looking out only for themselves risked serious hazard if they were suddenly unable to provide for themselves. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls,” says the Preacher. This remains true today, even with government assistance. As with all programmatic solutions to social problems, one often finds it delivers much less than it promises.

2. Companionship.  “If two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” There is nothing sexual about this statement. It need not even refer to marriage, and it can certainly be taken metaphorically as well as literally. On a cold night, there is nothing better than body heat. No pile of blankets will serve as effectively. Both my dog and cat have figured this out, so humans shouldn’t have difficulty with the concept. However, life is more than physical comfort, and companionship of all sorts — be it marriage, having children, or simply keeping close to friends and extended family — meets emotional needs as well as physical.

3. Self-Defense.  3,000 years ago, when the Preacher wrote Ecclesiastes, it was impossible to consider the benefits of relationships apart from the protection they provided from enemies. “A man might prevail against one who is alone.” This was always a danger. But not only could two (or three) withstand enemies and human predators, their very presence provided a deterrent. We live in very different times, of course, and some of us believe we have no real enemies at all. Still, there is always strength in numbers, especially where loyalty is present.

These are not all possible reasons for prizing relationships, nor are they even the best reasons, but they certainly remain valid.

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