The Book of Ecclesiastes has the expression, “Vanity of vanities, the Preacher says, vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2/Koheleta)
This biblical admonition, on first hearing, might be mistaken for an advertisement for the bathroom vanity cabinet. That item in a modern day bathroom which is applied to a large lighted mirror above the hand basin with shelves for the beauty products. One might find perfumes, hair dye, various lotions of make-up and perhaps medicines such as vitamin supplements. Depending on how long one spends before the vanity cabinet in the morning might determine how vain you are.
The word vanity has the meaning of excessive pride in or admiration of one's own appearance or achievements. Modern expectations for personal appearance as the key to success fall under the rule that, “It is better to look good than to feel good. It is better to look good than to be good.”
Placing this text from Ecclesiastes alongside the gospel story of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 provides in my opinion a good example of someone who is vain. The parable used by Jesus of the rich man, who pulled down his old barns and doubled the size to store the good harvest.
Looking at his success the rich man says to himself: “My friend you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.” (Luke12:19)
But then God said to the rich man, “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then? So it is when a man stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:20-21)
Jesus has nothing against looking your best. Nor does he have anything against success. But Jesus does offer advice on priorities and the foolishness of letting obsession with possessions rob us of attention to real human development and authenticity.
The wealthy farmer fixed on doubling his storage space to insure a long, leisurely retirement did not know he had only hours to live. All his possessions were headed for arbitration and likely to set his family squabbling for at least a generation.
We know we cannot take wealth with us to the next life. But Jesus suggests there is something we can take from this life into eternity. We can store up treasure in heaven by living lives rich in relationships and loving service. This is the make-up of heaven already. Death does not end our earthly networks of community and self-giving but confirms our discipleship for bringing heaven to earth during our lifetimes.
Wisdom of heart means recognising that love is real treasure and that every act of love pays forward to our place in the Beloved Community. To use our gifts and advantages for others in this life, is to come in empty here, in order to be filled with God in eternity. Those who have this wisdom already possess the joy of the gospel.
Given we have just celebrated Constitution Day and had a week of celebration that we refer to as Te Maeva Nui, I would like to make two observations that I view as looking for things that are of heaven.
I ask the question, were we able to recognise things of heaven during the week of festivity or were we entirely focused on the things that are of the earth? (Colossians 3:3-5)
When preaching last Sunday I asked the congregation, “Have you read the Constitution of the Cook Islands?” I was conscious at the time that many were shaking their heads with a “no”.
The greater part of the Constitution concerns the various aspects of governing the Cook Islands. It outlines the authority of cabinet, the makeup and rules of parliament. Another section is devoted to the structure, role and authority of the Judiciary. All very important for the effective governing of the country for the common good of its citizens.
I recommend you read the section (Part IV A) on the fundamental human rights and freedom. It states. (1) “It is hereby recognised and declared that in the Cook Islands there exist, and shall continue to exist, without discrimination by reason of race, national origin, colour, religion, opinion, belief, or sex, the following fundamental human rights and freedoms: (a) The right of the individual to life, liberty, and security of the person, and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with law; … (d) Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; (e) Freedom of speech and expression; (f) Freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) It is hereby recognised and declared that every person has duties to others, and accordingly is subject in the exercise of his rights and freedoms to such limitations as are imposed, by any enactment or rule of law for the time being in force, for protecting the rights and freedoms of others or in the interests of public safety, order, or morals[H1] , the general welfare, or the security of the Cook Islands.”
For me, this section of the Constitution speaks of things of heaven more than things of the earth with regards my personal rights versus protecting the freedom and rights of others.
My second observation comes from the working together of many citizens to provide entertainment, whether it be those involved in the float parade, choir competition or the Te Maeva Nui programme of dances.
I observed people putting aside their differences and working in cohesion, either out in front or behind the scene, to entertain others. The generosity in giving of their time to hours of practice to bring our people together and help give it an identity true to its custom.
It all speaks of giving. No one is better off financially from the experience. More likely poorer financially. We may well pray the words of Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
Thank you to all involved in Te Maeva Nui and Constitution celebrations. “So it is when a man/woman stores up treasure for him/herself in place of making him/herself rich in the sight of God.”