Saturday, February 29, 2020

Time and Chance (25)

As I write this, I haven’t had breakfast yet. I will shortly. There’s food in the fridge, and money in the bank if I opt to step out for a bite.

That covers this morning, and this afternoon, and maybe even the rest of this week. However, if I were to stop going to work, I would have a problem before long. The refrigerator would be empty, and the bank balance would dwindle until it hit rock bottom.

Paycheck to Paycheck

Like almost half of Canadians, I live more or less paycheck to paycheck. These days, even many high income earners are finding themselves in the same condition. They spend everything they make, they do not own their houses, and the moment their income source dries up, they have to think about selling off assets to meet their most basic needs.

Easy access to credit may tide the unemployed over for a while, but without some source of steady income, even the most patient creditor will eventually lose interest in throwing his money into a black hole.

Ecclesiastes 6:7 — Will Work for Food
“All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.”
Go back 3,000 years or so, and the Preacher’s statement was true of even more people than today. With no refrigeration, fewer foods could be hoarded against the future. With no easy credit available, working six days a week was the only option for most of the population.

The human condition is this: our need is essentially bottomless. Almost all our societal progress has been a consequence of gnawing necessity. Our bodies only continue to function so long as we are able to pile in the calories. Our ability to work is our only real hedge against starvation. It is by the sweat of our brows that we eat bread.

Speaking of bread, the gospel of John contains twenty references to it, six more than the other three gospels. The first reference has Jesus drawing the attention of his disciples to the fundamental human requirement for sustenance. Most of the rest involve the Lord demonstrating how his Father had sent him to meet not just that need but the cavernous spiritual emptiness of which hunger is the most apt picture.

Back in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, drawing only on his worldly perspective, could not be expected to anticipate God’s solution. He could only point out the problem and express his usual frustration with his observations.

Ecclesiastes 6:8 — Comparative Advantage
“For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living?”
These next two statements are connected to the previous one, I believe. In the absence of revelation from God that there is more to human existence than initially appears, how is wisdom of any particular value? If our lives are nothing more meaningful than a continual quest toward a goal which can never be achieved — the permanent satiation of our natural appetites — why bother being wise? Where satisfying the most fundamental human need is concerned, the moral midget* is in precisely the same condition as the man with moral discernment. He must decide to work, or else be made to work. Frankly, in a world without the knowledge of God, he may decide to steal his supper and be no worse off.

I like the way the New Living Translation puts the second sentence. It reads, “Do poor people gain anything by being wise and knowing how to act in front of others?” This is it precisely. “How,” the Preacher inquires, “does prudent behavior accomplish anything special for a man who is himself needy?” If a man’s ability to fill his maw consistently is the only measure by which he is to be judged, the needy man is obviously substandard. Knowing how to behave himself in the world has not gotten him fed any quicker than anyone else. If anything, his self-imposed restraints put him at a severe disadvantage.

Ecclesiastes 6:9 — A Bird in the Hand
“Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
We say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I think that’s the sense of this. The comparison is between what a man has in front of him and what he thinks he fancies, which may (or more often may not) turn out to be achievable or worth the effort. In context, the Preacher is still talking about food. It is often the case that exotic fancies and tasty treats turn out to disappoint. A teenager will inevitably prefer half a dozen donuts or an eight-slice pizza to an ordinary meal served by his mother, but the latter is usually better for him in the end.

This lesson may also be applied much more broadly. For example, in Proverbs, Solomon warns his sons against adultery on much the same principle; that appreciating what a man has in front of him is preferable to trying options that inevitably do not satisfy. “Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.”

Sound advice there.

* The Hebrew is kĕciyl, which sort of foolishness has nothing to do with a low IQ. This type of fool reliably chooses evil over good, ease over effort and imprudence over circumspection.

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