What’s the Point?
Every summer their family went on vacation. Every year, Grandmother brought the Monopoly game. Every year, she and the grandkids played Monopoly. Every year, she dominated. This went on, year after year, vacation after vacation. She bought low and sold high. And they couldn’t quite figure out her strategy. Until the oldest, almost 15, caught on. You have to spend money to make money; buy property, raise its value, and earn rent from everyone else. That summer, on vacation, for the first time ever, he took the lead from grandmother. All these years, all the siblings had just wanted to beat her. But now, he wanted to wipe the floor with her. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins. His eyes were on the prize – clean her out of every Monopoly money dollar she had. And he did. Penny-less, property-less, she conceded the game. Oh, the celebration that ensued, strutting and high-fives, “I am the champion, my friends,” he sang. While grandmother put the money back into the cardboard bank slots, stacked up the Chance and Community Chest cards, collected the properties and the game pieces, and folded the board. Then, as she placed the game board in the top of the box, she looked at her grandson and said, “Now that you’ve learned the secret of winning the game, there’s one more lesson to learn: when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”
That’s the message of Ecclesiastes. The words of the 3rd Chapter are the best-known, thanks to The Byrds. “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season….” Perhaps the second most-quoted words are from the 2nd verse, which reads in the King James Version, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” The word that the King James translates “vanity” in Hebrew is hevel. Other translations use “meaningless” or “pointless.” But, I don’t think any of those capture the intent of the writer of Ecclesiastes. Hevel literally means, “mist, vapor, or breath.” Perhaps The Message comes closer, “Smoke, nothing but smoke. There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.”
Reach out and try to grab the meaning of life, and it’s gone like taking hold of low rolling fog. It’s there, you know it is there, but you can’t hold onto it…and then, it’s gone.
What’s the point? When the game is over, it all goes back in the box. Perhaps we can gain a bit more insight if we dig another layer deeper into the word hevel. It is the Hebrew spelling for the name Abel. You remember the story of Abel, and his brother Cain, the first two sons of Adam and Eve? Cain was a farmed the land and Abel tended the flocks. Cain presented an offering to God from the crops. Abel offered the best of his flock as a sacrifice. It was Abel’s offering that brought pleasure to God. Cain became angry and murdered his brother.
Here’s the lesson for us, that I think the writer of Ecclesiastes is underlining, Abel’s name means “mist, vapor, or breath” while Cain’s name means “possession or acquisition.” The meaning of life is not in working for possessions and holding onto them. The point is not to buy low and sell high and win all the money. Yet, we live our lives like it is. In America, 86 percent of men and 67 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. Since 1950, the productivity of the American worker has increased 400%. That increase has not come without a cost.
Friday the kids and I went to see Christopher Robin. In it, Christopher Robin has forgotten about his childhood playmates and is consumed with work. He is so consumed that he has forgotten his wife and little girl, too. In one of the most poignant scenes of the movie, Christopher Robin has been told at work that he needs to work through the weekend to develop a plan to cut company costs by 20%. He goes home to tell his wife that he cannot go to the cabin for the weekend after all. He says to her, “If I work really hard now, in the future our lives will be…” She cuts him off, “Impressive? Worse? We don’t care. We want you.”
The message of Ecclesiastes is as important to us today as it was to the assembly who first heard it. Life is a cycle. You are born, you work, you die. The sun rises, the sun sets; generations come, generations go. The past isn’t remembered. How many generations back of your family do you remember?
So, what’s the point? What is the meaning of life? There’s nothing better for human beings than to eat, drink, and take pleasure in their hard work. You can have great wealth, experience immense pleasure, wield tremendous power, and possess renowned wisdom and it is chasing after the wind. You will be forgotten before long, reminds Ecclesiastes.
Really, what’s the point? It is to enjoy the everyday pleasures of life through the lens of remembering they are a gift from God. Ecclesiastes teaches that are three kinds of pleasures in our lives: the pleasures of the senses, the pleasures of relationships, and the pleasures of vocation (enjoying and finding satisfaction in our work). The point in life is to recognize that all these pleasures are gifts from God and to be grateful. Eating, sleeping, taking a walk, playing Monopoly, laughing, loving, working and achieving…all these are gifts from God to be enjoyed.
It is easy to forget to enjoy the simple pleasures. We blessed backpacks this morning that are going to go to school tomorrow morning, and then back home, and back to school, and back home, and pretty soon the routine will grow monotonous. The excitement of the first day of school will be short-lived. Students will go off to school tomorrow and meet new people who will soon become new friends, and pretty soon they will take the friendship for granted. The alarm clock will ring early in the morning, and the struggle of getting up and getting breakfast and packing lunch will overshadow the joy of waking up rested and savoring the food that nourishes our bodies.
Life is vapor. Like an early morning fog, it is gone before we know it, and our lasting impact is not in our grades or our wealth or our possessions or our brilliance or our power. We can have all the pleasures the world has to offer, but if we decide to possess them like Cain, we miss the meaning of life. May we, like Abel, recognize that the meaning in life is to make our moments in this world holy by offering them to God. May we remember that when the game is over, it all goes back in the box. Amen.