Thursday September 26, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11) Gospel (St. Luke 9:7-9)
In the first reading, we hear this very famous line: Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! It sounds like poor Qoheleth has quite a bad attitude. After all, if we heard somebody running around saying that we would say, "Oh, you're so negative! What a poor attitude you've got about things, seeing things always from the dark side." "This guy must have been depressed," we would say. But not at all. What he is doing is looking at things and simply saying, "What's important in life?"
We put forth so much effort on so many things and what really comes of it? There are some things that are critically important and that has to do with the spiritual life, with doing God's Will in our own lives, because that is the part that is going to remain. Some of those things, at times, are going to seem like mere vanity because if we do our daily duties, it is the same thing over and over and over again. We get up and do the same thing and then we go to bed and we get up and start all over again the next day, and we think, "This is just foolishness; it's redundant; it's just vanity. Why am I spending so much time just spinning my wheels doing the same thing?"
But if we look at it and recognize it from God's perspective, we realize it is not vanity if we are doing it God's way. It is pure vanity if we are doing it out of selfishness, but if it is being done out of charity then it is not vanity at all. So it depends not merely on what it is that we are doing but also on how we do it. For instance, if we look at somebody who gets up and takes care of children everyday: you have to feed them, you have to change them, you have to take care of them, you have to teach them, it is the same thing day in and day out. Look at somebody who has to get up and go to work everyday: you get up, you go to the same job, you do the same thing for eight hours, you go home, and you do the whole thing all over again. Now you could do it purely out of selfish motives or you could do it for the sake of those whom God has entrusted to your care. And so, it depends on why you are doing it, and then it depends on how you are doing it. If we are doing things, again, for a selfish reason - to make ourselves look good or whatever - it is vanity. If we are doing things because it is the right thing to do and we are doing it out of charity for those around us and for those we are called to serve, then it is charity. If things are just done externally, if all we do is look at things from an arm's distance and say, "Well, look at all these things," it is all vanity.
It is the same problem Herod had. He got caught up in all of his power and all he wants to do is to see Jesus. Now on one level we would say, "Praise God! He wants to see the Lord." But he did not want to see the Lord for the sake of recognizing who He was and having a conversion. He refused to listen to the truth, and beheaded John. Now it is his jealousy, it is his own insecurity that becomes the problem: He wants to find out who this man is because he is a threat to his kingdom. Vanity. If he would be humble, if he would come to the Lord and bow down before Him, he would then recognize truly what it is to be a king. But he didn't. All he was interested in was himself and all of his vain nonsense that surrounded him. And so he died in his sin because he refused to look at the One who had the ability to forgive his sin; all he wanted to do was know who Jesus was so he could rid the earth of Him, as he had done with John the Baptist. Vanity of vanities!
So too in our lives. We need simply to look at what we are doing, why we are doing it, what we surround ourselves with, what we make important in our lives, where our priorities are, and so on. If we do not have the priorities that Our Lord lays out for us - that is, love God and love neighbor -as the top two priorities, then there is only one priority that can possibly be. That is, love of self is the top priority. For most people in the world that is the top priority; it is not love of God and love of neighbor - it is love of self, and then whatever leads us to a greater love of self. If God happens to fit into that, well, that is a happy thing for us. But it is not because of love for God; it is because it makes us feel better or whatever it may be. We need to get the priorities adjusted because if the priority is the self, it is pure vanity. If the priority is love of God and love of neighbor and we are truly seeking their good for who they are, then it is charity.
So the same thing comes right back around. If we are living our lives for ourselves, then we will have to say with Qoheleth, "Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" If we are living our lives for God and for those around us then things are not vanity - then it is charity. Then we are seeking a spiritual life, we are seeking union with God, we are seeking something which is not going to pass away but something which is going to grow and continue for all eternity. If that is the case, then we can change this little quote and we can say, "Charity! All things are charity!"
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.