Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
When I was a moody teenager, I fell in love with existentialism. My high school English teacher explained to us that the core of existentialist thought could be summed up in a single sentence as, “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die.” I am sure that existentialists themselves would provide a more nuanced definition of their philosophy, but the way I heard it, it made sense. I was exposed to more heartbreaking images and stories with the Internet boom of the early 2000s. I was able to hear the the stories of my family’s struggles with more mature ears. As an adolescent I was growing in my understandings of injustices and wrongdoing throughout the world. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that led to the Holocaust and the murder of my grandparents’ family and friends. I could not explain the cruel absurdities that left millions and millions of people around the world starving or malnourished. In the months after September 11, I could not wrap my head around the cruel absurdities of life that allowed thousands of people to die in the World Trade Center attack and the ensuing War on Terror. “Life is absurd and nonsensical and then you die,” made sense to me.
After this English lesson on existentialism, I started reading existentialist authors on my own. I eventually read The Trial by Franz Kafka. In this story, the main character, known simply as K, has been summoned to appear at trial for a crime he has committed. K does not know what the crime was and he never finds out. He journeys through the land of bureaucracy being passed along from one suit to the next and the only thing they are able to tell him (after many frustrating conversations) is where and when his trial will take place. Everyone he talks to is quick to judge his personal character, but no one can find what crime he is being charged with. Even in the trial itself the defense lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge never say what K’s crime was, but nonetheless K is found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Trial certainly isn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of story, but it articulated what I was feeling in my adolescence and new learnings about the terrible things going on throughout the world. The cruel absurdity of the story reflected my own confused exposure to the cruelties of war, terror, disease, and poverty. It seemed like so many people in the world were being sentenced to death for a crime that no one could articulate.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is a sort of biblical existentialist.
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” he shouts. Everything is fleeting. Nothing lasts.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes goes through his absurd journey to find meaning in the world. He searches for wisdom and concludes that it fades. He looks at good, hard work and concludes that it too fades. He explains that you will never see an end to your work and you will inevitably have to pass it on to someone else when you die and that person may very well not care about it as much as you did. He laments, “For all [mortals] days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
If life is filled with so much suffering and our work seems to be vain and fleeting, why even bother? Why bother working at all?
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes says that the work and wisdom we seek in life is vanity or fleeting. This is both a somber statement about the cruelty mortals experience in life and it is a hopeful message that declares that suffering also is fleeting. Continue reading