Fruit Of Our Labours
Sunday, 31 July 2016
I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me (Ecclesiastes 2:18)
I have a gold watch chain that used to belong to my grandfather. When we cleared out his house after he’d died I got that, a rack of mugs and a multimeter. There wasn’t much in his house. Not much to show for a lifetime of living and working. That was true of most of my ancestors. None of my Scottish ancestors had enough to make it worthwhile writing a will. They didn’t own their houses and had no special craftsman’s equipment. I imagine a few bits and pieces were passed on. Not much to show for a lifetime’s living and working. I’m wearing my Dad’s shoes.
And so it goes. Generation succeeds generation. For most of human history “clearing the house” after someone died didn’t, for most people, amount to much. What was there was passed on. If these were the fruits of their labours in life, they generally amounted to very little. Whatever the case, though, a time had come when they no longer had any use for them and they would be passed on to others. It is as the writer of Ecclesiastes says - whatever the fruits of his labours in life he will have to leave them to others.
There is something that really needs emphasised about the parable Jesus teaches about the rich man and his barns full of grain. Nothing unusual or strange happens to him. He dies. There is no suggestion that he is tragically young or that his end is especially painful. he dies, as everyone dies. What is true of him is as true of any one of us. There is an interesting parallel, though, between the man in the parable and Qoheleth - the person speaking in Ecclesiastes. The man in Jesus’s parable is said to be a rich man - the owner of richly productive lands. Qoheleth claims to have been king in Israel - top of the pile as far as being rich and successful is concerned. For both of them, though, that wealth and success is fleeting - as of course it must be - and they will pass on the fruit of their labours to others
The tone of Ecclesiastes is often cynical and fatalistic. Qoheleth - whoever he was - seems very world-weary. The book, with its repeated refrain of “Vanity! All is vanity!”, often seems to suggest that life is nothing but a pointless slog where, however hard you work, none of it really amounts to anything. The book, by the way, scarcely mentions God at all. Maybe that’s the point. Here’s my take on Ecclesiastes. I don’t think Qoheleth was a king at all. He’s putting these words into the mouth of a person who is as rich and as powerful and as successful as it’s possible to be to point up the fact that without God none of that matters. None of that matters because however rich and powerful and successful you are, all that will pass to someone else. Vanity. All is vanity.
Imagine you’re a multimillionaire. Let’s call you Sir Philip Yellow. You can take huge sums out of a business you own and turn that money into yachts and pleasure palaces. You can drain the cash from your company’s pension scheme through your wife’s bank account to avoid tax. You can consort with Khans and Princes. But one day your life will be done. Those things will pass to someone else and have you been one whit a better person for any of that? If the fruits of your labours have been men and women thrown on the dole, their pensions frittered away on your yachts and your fancies, have you made the world one whit better a place for your having been in it?
There, perhaps, is the nub of what we should really consider to be the fruit of our labours. Consider the context in which Jesus teaches the parable of the rich man’s barns. A guy approaches Jesus in the crowd and asks him to tell his brother to share the family inheritance with him. When Jesus replies he reminds them that their lives aren’t defined by what they own. And notice, he says this to “them”. His brother seems to have been there as well. In a sense he’s knocking their heads together and saying, “Look! You’re supposed to love one another. That ought to matter more than the details of your inheritance!” One wonders what their relationship was while their father was alive.
Maybe Qoheleth is pointing to the fact that the true fruits of our labours are not the ones we often confuse with the trappings of wealth and success and fame. Maybe the true fruits of our labours here on Earth are somewhat less tangible, but more real. Maybe there are are things we pass on - generally before we pass on - that are not vanity.
I regard myself as very lucky in my work. It hasn’t brought me fame or fabulous wealth. It hasn’t brought me power in the way the world sees power. But I’ve seen kids’ eyes light up when suddenly the penny drops about the way this fabulous universe God made works - when they suddenly realise they understand something that a moment ago seemed so hard. I have seen kids who have been so difficult to work with - rude and ill-behaved - turn themselves around and become people I am proud to be associated with. When kids have been upset because others have treated them harshly I have dried their eyes and reminded them how fantastic they are - because, from where I stand, they are children of God and precious. I have been part of these kids’ lives and if they are the fruit of my labours, if that’s what I’m handing on, I can live with that. Vanity? Hah!
I don’t say this to blow my own trumpet. There are millions of folk doing this all the time. There are millions of people acting as conduits for the love of God in the world. There are millions of people changing the lives of others simply by caring about them. There are millions of people making others know that they matter. There are refugees settling into homes with clothes and bedding and furniture because people have helped them; have said, “You know what? I don’t need this - they do”. Let’s give that a word. Let’s call it compassion. There are farmers in Africa and in South America whose kids are growing up healthy and going to school because folk in our supermarkets pick up a bunch of FairTrade bananas or a jar of FairTrade coffee and and say, “You know what, for a few extra pence this is worth it.
We are gathered here to worship God and to acknowledge ourselves as followers of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. By any human standard Jesus was a failure. He died poor. His followers were scattered. He had no wealth, no power, no status in the world and died a horrific death. Yet, his teachings about a loving and compassionate God ring around the world today. In a world that sometimes seems to be tearing itself apart we gather here in witness to a God in whose eyes there are no divisions and all are his children. In a world that seems, every day, to bring more conflict and bloodshed we gather here in witness to the Prince of Peace. In a world where the urge to power and wealth results in poverty and hunger we gather here in witness to the truth that a hand offered to another is the most powerful thing in the world.
So what will we hand on? Who knows what the outworking of every act of compassion and kindness will be? One day, in another world, what survives of us there will perhaps know. For now I’m wearing my father’s shoes but they remind me that what survives of us in this world is love.
Lord, may the fruits of our labours be lives touched and shaped by kindness and compassion. May we hand on love to those who follow us